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St. Francis Preaching to the Birds. 
Attributed to Giotto 




Author of "The Life of Mammals," "Nature's Calendar,' 

"The Wit of the Wild," etc.: and Secretary 

of the Authors Club, New York 




Copyright, 1923, by 


X 3 - 9 3 5 S 6 -i-' - 




I. A Chat with the Intending Reader ... 3 
II. Birds as National Emblems 28 

III. An Ornithological Comedy of Errors . . 51 

IV. The Folklore of Bird Migration . . . .81 
V. Noah's Messengers 9 8 

VI. Birds in Christian Tradition and Festival . 109 

VII. Birds as Symbols and Badges 127 

VIII. Black Feathers make Black Birds . . .154 

IX. The Familiar of Witches 179 

X. A Flock of Fabulous Fowls 191 

XL From Ancient Auguries to Modern Rain- 
birds 212 

XII. A Primitive View of the Origin of Species . 226 

XIII. Birds and the Lightning 242 

XIV. Legends in an Historical Setting . . . .253 
XV. Some Pretty Indian Stories 270 

List of Books Referred to 282 

Index 287 




Angus Mac-ind-oc was the Cupid of the Gaels. He was a harper 
of the sweetest music, and was attended by birds, his own trans- 
formed kisses, which hovered, invisible, over young men and 
maidens of Erin, whispering love into their ears. 

WHEN we say, "A little bird told me," we are 
talking legend and folklore and superstition all 
at once. There is an old Basque story of a bird 
— always a small one in these tales — that tells the truth ; 
and our Biloxi Indians used to say the same of the 
hummingbird. Breton peasants still credit all birds with 
the power of using human language on proper occasions, 
and traditions in all parts of the world agree that every 
bird had this power once on a time if not now. The 
fireside-tales of the nomads of Oriental deserts or of 
North American plains and forest alike attest faith in 
this power ; and conversation by and with birds is almost 
the main stock of the stories heard on our Southern cot- 
ton-plantations. You will perhaps recall the bulbul 
bazar of the Arabian Nights, and, if you please, you may 
read in another chapter of the conversational pewit and 
hoopoe of Solomonic fame. 

Biblical authority exists in the confidence of the 


Prophet Elijah that a "bird of the air . . . shall tell the 
matter"; and monkish traditions abound in revelations 
whispered in the ear of the faithful by winged mes- 
sengers from divine sources, as you may read further 
along if you have patience to turn the leaves. The poets 
keep alive the pretty fiction; and the rest of us resort 
to the phrase with an arch smile whenever we do not care 
to quote our authority for repeating some half-secret bit 
of gossip. "This magical power of understanding bird- 
talk," says Halliday, 1 * "is regularly the way in which the 
seers of myths obtain their information." 

Primitive men — and those we style the Ancients were 
primitive so far as nature is concerned — regarded birds 
as supernaturally wise. This canniness is implied in 
many of the narratives and incidents set down in the 
succeeding pages; and in view of it birds came to be 
regarded by early man with great respect, yet also with 
apprehension, for they might utilize their knowledge to 
his harm. For example: The Canada jay is believed 
by the Indians along the northern shore of Hudson Bay 
to give warning whenever they approach an Eskimo camp 
— usually, of course, with hostile intent; and naturally 
those Indians kill that kind of jay whenever they can. 

The ability in birds to speak implies knowledge, and 
Martha Young 2 gives us a view of this logic prevailing 
among the old-time southern darkies: 

♦This and similar "superior" figures throughout the text refer 
to the List of Books in the Appendix, where the author and 
title of the publication alluded to will be found under its number. 

The author takes this opportunity, in place of a perfunctory 
Preface, to make grateful acknowledgment of assistance to Pro- 
fessor A. V. H. Jackson, who revised the chapter on fabulous birds ; 
to Mr. Stewart Culin, helpful in Chinese matters, etc.; to Pro- 
fessor Justin H. Smith, who scanned the whole manuscript; and 
to others who furnished valuable facts and suggestions. 


Sis' Dove she know mo'n anybody or anything in de worl'. 
She know pintedly de time anybody gwine die. You'll hear 
her moanin' fer a passin' soul 'fo' you hear de bell tone. 
She know 'fo' cotton-plantin' time whe'r de craps dat gatherin' 
'11 be good er bad. To' folks breaks up de new groun' er 
bust out middles, Sis' Dove know what de yield '11 be. She 
know it an' she'll tell it, too. 'Caze ev'ybody know if 
Sis' Dove coo on de right han' of a man plowin', dare '11 be 
a good crap dat year; but ef she coo on de lef dar '11 be a 
faillery crap dat year. 

Sis' Dove she know about all de craps dat grow out er de 
groun' but she 'special know about corn, fer she plant de fi'st 
grain er corn dat ever was plant' in de whole worl\ Whar 
she git it ? . . . Umm — hum ! You tell me dat ! 

From the belief in the intuitive wisdom of birds comes 
the world-wide confidence in their prophetic power. 
Hence their actions, often so mysterious, have been 
watched with intense interest, and everything unusual 
in their behavior was noticed in the hope that it might 
express a revelation from on high. Advantage was taken 
of this pathetic hope and assurance by the Roman augurs 
in their legalized ornithomancy, of which some descrip- 
tion will be found in another chapter. Nine-tenths of it 
was priestly humbug to keep ordinary folks in mental 
subjection, as priestcraft has ever sought to do. The 
remaining tenth has become the basis of the present 
popular faith in birds' ability to foretell coming weather. 
Let me cite a few aboriginal examples of this faith, 
more or less sincere, in the ability and willingness of 
birds to warn inquiring humanity. 

The Omahas and other Siouan Indians used to say 
that when whippoorwills sing at night, saying "Hoia, 
hohin?" one replies "No." If the birds stop at once, it is 
a sign that the answerer will soon die, but if the birds 
keep on calling he or she will live a long time. The 
Utes of Colorado, however, declare that this bird is the 


god of the night, and that it made the moon by magic, 
transforming a frog into it; while the Iroquois indulged 
in the pretty fancy that the moccasin-flowers (cypri- 
pediums) are whippoorwills' shoes. 

This is a little astray from my present theme, to which 
we may return by quoting from Waterton 73 that if one 
of the related goatsuckers of the Amazon Valley be heard 
close to an Indian's or a negro's hut, from that night 
evil fortune sits brooding over it. In Costa Rica bones 
of whippoorwills are dried and ground to a fine powder 
by the Indians when they want to concoct a charm against 
some enemy ; mixed with tobacco it will form a cigarette 
believed to cause certain death to the person smoking it. 

To the mountaineers of the southern Alleghanies the 
whippoorwill reveals how long it will be before marriage 
— as many years as its notes are repeated: as I have 
heard the bird reiterate its cry more than 800 times with- 
out taking breath, this must often be a discouraging re- 
port to an anxious maid or bachelor. One often hears it 
said lightly in New England that a whippoorwill calling 
very near a house portends death, but I can get no evi- 
dence that this "sign" is really attended to anywhere in the 
northern United States. 

This, and the equally nocturnal screechowl (against 

which the darkies have many "conjurings") are not the 

only birds feared by rural folk in the Southern States, 

especially in the mountains. A child in a family of 

Georgia "crackers" fell ill, and his mother gave this 

account of it to a sympathetic friend: 

Mikey is bound to die. I've know'd it all along. All las' 
week the moanin' doves was comin roun' the house, and this 
mornin' one come in at the window right by Mikey's head, an' 
cooed an' moaned. I couldn't scare it away, else a witch would 
'a' put a spell on me. 


Mikey lived to become a drunkard, is the unfeeling com- 
ment of the reporter of this touching incident in The 
Journal of American Folklore. 

"One constantly hears by day the note of the limocon, 
a wood-pigeon which exercises a most extraordinary 
interest over the lives of many of the wild people, for 
they believe that the direction and nature of its notes 
augur good or ill for the enterprises they have in hand." 
This memorandum, in Dean Worcester's valuable book 
on the Philippines, 3 is apt to the purpose of this intro- 
ductory chapter, leading me to say that the continuing 
reader will find doves (which are much the same in all 
parts of the world) conspicuous in legend, fable and 
ceremony; also that the "direction and nature" of their 
voices, as heard, is one of the most important elements 
in the consideration of birds in general as messengers 
and prophets — functions to which I shall often have oc- 
casion to refer, and on which are founded the ancient 
systems of bird-divination. 

In these United States little superstition relating to 
animals has survived, partly because the wild creatures 
here were strange to the pioneers, who were poorly ac- 
quainted with their characteristics, but mainly because 
such fears and fancies were left in the Old World with 
other rubbish not worth the freight-charges; yet a few 
quaint notions came along, like small heirlooms of no 
particular value that folks dislike to throw away until 
they must. Almost all such mental keepsakes belong to 
people in the backward parts of the country, often with 
an ill-fitting application to local birds. A conspicuous 
disappearance is that venerable body of forebodings and 
fancies attached to the European cuckoo, totally unknown 
or disregarded here, because our American cuckoos have 


no such irregular habits as gave rise to the myths and 
superstitions clustering about that bird in Europe. 

We saw a moment ago that the negro farmer estimated 
what the yield of his field would be by the direction from 
which the dove's message came to his ears. I have an- 
other note that if one hears the first mourning-dove of 
the year above him he will prosper: if from below him 
his own course henceforth will be down hill. 

This matter of direction whence (and also of number) 
is of vital importance in interpreting bird-prophecy the 
world over, as will be fully shown in a subsequent 
chapter. Even in parts of New England it is counted 
"unlucky" to see two crows together flying toward the 
left — a plain borrowing from the magpie-lore of Old 
England. In the South it is thought that if two quails 
fly up in front of a man on the way to conclude a bargain 
he will do well to abandon the intended business. Break 
up a killdeer's nest and you will soon break a leg or arm 
— and so on. 

There always have been persons who were much dis- 
turbed when a bird fluttered against a closed window. 
A rooster crowing into an open house-door foretells a 
visitor. The plantation darkies of our Southern States 
believe that when shy forest-birds come close about a 
dwelling as if frightened, or, wandering within it, beat 
their wings wildly in search of an exit, so some soul will 
flutteringly seek escape from that house — and "right 
soon." Similar fears afflict the timid on the other side 
of the globe. On the contrary, and more naturally, it is 
esteemed among us an excellent omen when wild birds 
nest fearlessly about a negro's or a mountaineer's cabin. 

When a Georgia girl first hears in the spring the plain- 
tive call of returning doves she must immediately attend 


to it if she is curious as to her future partner in life. 
She must at once take nine steps forward and nine back- 
ward, then take off her right shoe: in it she will discover 
a hair of the man she is to marry — but how to find its 
owner is not explained ! This bit of rustic divination is 
plainly transferred from the old English formula toward 
the first-heard cuckoo, as may be learned from Gay's 
The Sheperd's Week, 8 which is a treasury of rustic cus- 
toms in Britain long ago. Says one of the maids : 

Then doff'd my shoe, and by my troth I swear, 
Therein I spy'd this yellow, frizzled hair. 

This matter of the hair is pure superstition allied to 
magic, in practicing which, indeed, birds have often been 
degraded to an evil service very remote from their nature. 
Thiselton Dyer quotes an Irish notion that "in every- 
one's head there is a particular hair which, if the swallow 
can pluck it, dooms the wretched individual to eternal 
perdition." A Baltimore folklorist warns every lady 
against letting birds build nests with the combings of 
her hair, as it will turn the unfortunate woman crazy. 
Any woman afraid of this should beware of that dear 
little sprite of our garden shrubbery, the chipping-spar- 
row, for it always lines its tiny nest with hair. This 
notion is another importation, for it has long been a 
saying in Europe that if a bird uses human hair in its 
nest the owner of the hair will have headaches and later 
baldness. Curiously enough the Seneca Indians, one of 
the five Iroquois tribes, are said to have long practised 
a means, as they believed it to be, of communicating with 
a maiden-relative, after her death, by capturing a fledg- 
ling bird with a noose made from her hair. The bird 
was kept caged until it began to sing, when it was libe- 


rated and was believed to carry to the knowledge of the 
departed one a whispered message of love. 

Now the idea underlying all this faith in the super- 
natural wisdom and prophetic gift in birds is the general 
supposition that they are spirits, or, at any rate, possessed 
by spirits, a doctrine that appears in various guises but is 
universal in the world of primitive culture — a world 
nearer to us sophisticated readers than perhaps we 
realize: but a good many little children inhabit it, even 
within our doors. 

"The primitive mind, ,, as Dr. Brinton asserts, "did not 
recognize any deep distinction between the lower animals 
and man"; and continues: 

The savage knew that the beast was his superior in many 
points, in craft and in strength, in fleetness and intuition, and he 
regarded it with respect. To him the brute had a soul not in- 
ferior to his own, and a language which the wise among men 
might on occasion learn. . . . Therefore with wide unanimity 
he placed certain species of animals nearer to God than is man 
himself, or even identified them with the manifestations of the 

None was in this respect a greater favorite than the bird. 
Its soaring flight, its strange or sweet notes, the marked hues 
of its plumage, combined to render it a fit emblem of power 
and beauty. The Dyaks of Borneo trace their descent to 
Singalang Burong, the god of birds; and birds as the ancestors 
of the totemic family are extremely common among the 
American Indians. The Eskimos say that they have the faculty 
of soul or life beyond all other creatures, and in most primitive 
tribes they have been regarded as the messengers of the divine, 
and the special purveyors of the vital principles . . . and every- 
where to be able to understand the language of birds was 
equivalent to being able to converse with the gods. 4 

If this is true it is not surprising that savages in various 
parts of the world trace their tribal origin to a super- 
natural bird of the same form and name as some familiar 


local species, which was inhabited by the soul of their 
heroic "first man." The Osage Indians of Kansas, for 
example, say that as far back as they can conceive of 
time their ancestors were alive, but had neither bodies 
nor souls. They existed beneath the lowest of the four 
"upper worlds/' and at last migrated to the highest, where 
they obtained souls. Then followed travels in which they 
searched for some source whence they might get human 
bodies, and at last asked the question of a redbird sitting 
on her nest. She replied: "I can cause your children to 
have human bodies from my own." She explained that 
her wings would be their arms, her head their head, and 
so on through a long list of parts, external and internal, 
showing herself a good comparative anatomist. Finally 
she declared: "The speech (or breath) of children will 
I bestow on your children." 5 

Such is the story of how humanity reached the earth, 
according to one branch of the Osages : other gentes 
also believe themselves descended from birds that came 
down from an upper world. Dozens of similar cases 
might be quoted, of which I will select one because of its 
curious features. The Seri, an exclusive and backward 
tribe inhabiting the desert-like island Tiburon, in the Gulf 
of California, ascribe the creation of the world, and of 
themselves in particular, to the Ancient of Pelicans, a 
mythical fowl of supernal wisdom and melodious song — 
an unexpected poetic touch! — who first raised the earth 
above the primeval waters. This laf; point is in con- 
formity with the general belief that a waste of waters 
preceded the appearance, by one or another miraculous 
means well within the redman's range of experience, of 
a bit of land; and it is to be observed that this original 
patch of earth, whether fixed or floating, was enlarged 


to habitable dimensions not by further miracles, nor by 
natural accretion, but, as a rule, by the labor and in- 
genuity of the "first men" themselves, usually aided by 
favorite animals. Thus the Seri Indians naturally held 
the pelican in especial regard, but that did not prevent 
their utilizing it to the utmost. Dr. W J McGee 6 found 
that one of their customs was to tie a broken-winged, liv- 
ing pelican to a stake near the seashore, and then appro- 
priate the fishes brought to the captive by its free 

In fewer cases we find that not only tribal but also 
individual origin is ascribed to a bird, the best illustra- 
tion of which is the notion of the natives of Perak, in the 
Malay Peninsula, that a bird brings the soul to every 
person at birth. A woman who is about to become a 
mother selects as the place where her baby shall be 
born the foot of a certain tree — any one that appeals to 
her fancy — and this will be the "name-tree" of her child. 
The parents believe that a soul has been waiting for this 
child in the form of a bird that for some time before 
the birth frequents all the trees of the chosen kind in 
that vicinity, searching for the occasion when it may de- 
liver its charge, intrusted to it by Kari, the tribal god. 
This bird must be killed and eaten by the expectant 
mother just before the actual birth or the baby will never 
come to life, or if it does will speedily die. A poetic 
feature in this tender explanation of the mystery of life 
among the jungle-dwellers is that the souls of first-born 
children are brought always by the newly hatched off- 
spring of the bird that contained the soul of the mother 
of the child. 7 

Apart from this singular conception of the source of 
existence, the general theory of spirituality in birds is 


based, as heretofore intimated, on the almost universal 
belief that they are often the visible spirits of the dead. 
The Powhatans of Virginia, for example, held that the 
feathered race received the souls of their chiefs at death; 
and a California tribe asserted that the small birds whose 
hard luck it was to receive the souls of bad men were 
chased and destroyed by hawks, so that those of good 
Indians alone reached the happy hunting-grounds beyond 
the sky. 

James G. Swan relates in his interesting old book about 
early days at Puget Sound, 10 that the Indians at Shoal- 
water Bay, Oregon, were much disturbed one morning 
because they had heard the whistling of a plover in the 
night. The white men there told them it was only a 
bird's crying, but they insisted the noise was that of 
spirits. Said they: "Birds don't talk in the night; they 
talk in the daytime." "But," asked Russell, "how can you 
tell that it is the memelose tillicunis, or dead people? 
They can't talk." "No," replied the savage, "it is true they 
can't talk as we do, but they whistle through their teeth. 
You are a white man and do not understand what they 
say, but Indians know." 

This bit of untainted savage philosophy recalls the 
queer British superstition of the Seven Whistlers. 
Wordsworth, who was a North-countryman, records of 
his ancient Dalesman — 

He the seven birds hath seen that never part, 
Seen the Seven Whistlers on their nightly rounds 
And counted them. 

The idea that the wailing of invisible birds is a warning 
of danger direct from Providence prevails especially in 
the English colliery districts, where wildfowl, migrating 


at night and calling to one another as they go, supply 
exactly the right suggestion to the timid. Sailors fear 
them as "storm-bringers." Even more horrifying is the 
primitive Welsh conception (probably capable of a similar 
explanation) of the Three Birds of Rhiannon, wife of 
Pwyll, ruler of Hades, that could sing the dead to life 
and the living into the sleep of death. Luckily they were 
heard only at the death of great heroes in battle. 

How easily such things may beguile the imagination 
is told in Thomas W. Higginson's book on army life in 
the black regiment of which he was the colonel during 
the Civil War. This sane and vigorous young officer 
writes of an incident on the South Carolina Coast: "I 
remember that, as I stood on deck in the still and misty 
evening, listening with strained senses for some sound 
of approach of an expected boat, I heard a low con- 
tinuous noise from the distance, more mild and desolate 
than anything my memory can parallel. It came from 
within the vast circle of mist, and seemed like the cry 
of a myriad of lost souls upon the horizon's verge; it 
was Dante become audible: yet it was but the accumu- 
lated cries of innumerable seafowl at the entrance of the 
outer bay." 9 

But I have rambled away along an enticing by-path, 
as will frequently happen in the remainder of this book 
— to the reader's interest, I venture to believe. 

Returning to the theme of a moment ago, I recall that 
the Rev. H. Friend lx tells us that he has seen Buddhist 
priests in Canton "bless a small portion of their rice, and 
place it at the door of the refectory to be eaten by the 
birds which congregate there." These offerings are to 
the "house spirits," by which the Chinese mean the spirits 
of their ancestors, who are still kindly interested in the 


welfare of the family. This is real ancestor-worship ex- 
pressed in birds ; and Spence 12 records that "the shamans 
of certain tribes of Paraguay act as go-betweens between 
the members of their tribes and such birds as they imagine 
enshrine the souls of their departed relatives." The 
heathen Lombards ornamented their grave-posts with 
the effigy of a dove. This notion of birds as reincarnated 
human souls is not confined to untutored minds nor to 
an ancient period. Evidences of its hold on the human 
imagination may be found in Europe down to the present 
day, and it animates one of the most picturesque super- 
stitions of pious followers of Mahomet, two forms of 
which have come to me. The first is given by Doughty, 13 
the second by Keane, 14 both excellent authorities. 

Doughty says: "It was an ancient opinion of the 
idolatrous Arabs that the departing spirit flitted from 
man's brainpan as a wandering fowl, complaining thence- 
forward in perpetual thirst her unavenged wrong; 
friends, therefore, to avenge the friend's soul-bird, poured 
upon the grave their pious libations of wine. The bird 
is called a 'green fowl.' " 

Quoting Keane: "It is a superstition among the Mo- 
hammedans that the spirits of martyrs are lodged in the 
crops of green birds, and partake of the fruit and drink 
of the rivers of paradise; also that the souls of the good 
dwell in the form of white birds near the throne of God." 

But the spirits represented in birds are not always 
ancestral or benevolent: they may be unpleasant, fore- 
boding, demoniac. The Indians and negroes along the 
Amazons will not destroy goatsuckers. Why? Because 
they are receptacles for departed human souls who have 
come back to earth unable to rest because of crimes done 
in their former bodies, or to haunt cruel and hard-hearted 

Z 6 birds in legend 

masters. In Venezuela and Trinidad the groan-like cries 
of the nocturnal, cave-dwelling guacharos are thought 
to be the wailing of ghosts compelled to stay in their 
caverns in order to expiate their sins. Even now, the 
Turks maintain that the dusky shearwaters that daily 
travel in mysterious flocks up and down the Bosphorus 
are animated by condemned human souls. 

By way of the ancestral traditions sketched above, 
arise those "sacred animals" constantly mentioned in 
accounts of ancient or backward peoples. Various birds 
were assigned to the deities and heroes of Egyptian and 
Pagan mythology — the eagle to Jove, goose and later the 
peacock to Juno, the little owl to Minerva, and so on ; but 
to call these companions "sacred" is a bad use of the term, 
for there was little or nothing consecrate in these ascrip- 
tions, and if in any case worship was addressed to the 
deity, its animal companion was hardly included in the 
reverential thought of the celebrant. 

It is conceivable that such ascriptions as these are the 
refined relics of earlier superstitions held by primitive 
folk everywhere in regard to such birds of their territory 
as appealed to their imaginations because of one or an- 
other notable trait. Ethnological and zoological books 
abound in instances, which it would be tedious to catalog, 
and several examples appear elsewhere in this book. A 
single, rather remarkable one, that of the South African 
ground-hornbill or bromvogel, will suffice to illustrate 
the point here. I choose, among several available, the 
account given by Layard, 15 one of the early naturalist- 
explorers in southern Africa : 

The Fingoes seem to attach some superstitious veneration to 
the ground-hornbills and object to their being shot in the 
neighborhood of their dwellings, lest they should lose their 


cattle by disease. . . . The Kaffirs have a superstition that if 
one of these birds is killed it will rain for a long time. I am 
told that in time of drought it is the custom to take one alive, 
tie a stone to it, then throw it into a "vley"; after that a rain is 
supposed to follow. They avoid using the water in which this 
ceremony has been performed. . . . Only killed in time of 
severe drought, when one is killed by order of the rain-doctor 
and its body is thrown into a pool in a river. The idea is that 
the bird has so offensive a smell that it will make the water 
sick, and that the only way of getting rid of this is to wash it 
away to the sea, which can only be done by a heavy rain. 

The ground where they feed is considered good for cattle, 
and in settling a new country spots frequented by these birds 
are chosen by the wealthy people. Should the birds, however, 
by some chance, fly over a cattle kraal, the kraal is moved to 
some other place. ... It is very weak on the wing, and when 
required by the "doctor" the bird is caught by the men of a 
number of kraals turning out at the same time, and a particular 
bird is followed from one hill to another by those on the look- 
out. After three or four flights it can be run down and caught 
by a good runner. . . . The Ovampos [of Damara land] seem 
to have a superstition [that the eggs cannot be procured because 
so soft that] they would fall to pieces on the least handling. 

It seems to me likely that the sense of service to men 
in its constant killing of dreaded snakes — birds and ser- 
pents are linked together in all barbaric religious and 
social myths — may be at the core of the veneration paid 
the hornbill, as, apparently, it was in the case of the 
Egyptian ibis. This wader was not only a foe to lizards 
and small snakes, but, as it always appeared in the Nile 
just as the river showed signs of beginning its periodic 
overflow, a matter of anxious concern to the people, it 
was regarded as a prescient and benevolent creature fore- 
telling the longed-for rise of the water. At Hermopolis, 
situated at the upper end of the great fertile plain of 
the lower Nile, the ibis was incarnated as Thoth (identi- 
fied by the Greeks with Hermes), one of the highest gods 


of the ancient Egyptians. This ibis, and other incarnated 
animals, originally mere symbols of lofty ideas, came to 
be reverenced as real divinities in the places where their 
cult flourished (although they might enjoy no such dis- 
tinction elsewhere), were given divine honors when they 
died, and were, in short, real gods to their devotees ; that is 
to say, the sophisticated Egyptians of the later dynasties 
had elevated into the logical semblance of divinity this 
and that animal-fetish of their uncultured ancestors. 

Another singular case of a bird rising to the eminence 
of tutelary deity is that of the ruddy sheldrake (Casarca 
rutila) or Brahminy duck in Thibet. From it is derived 
the title of the established church of the lamas (practi- 
cally the government of that Buddhistic country) ; and 
their abbotts wear robes of the sheldrake colors. In 
Burmah the Brahminy duck is sacred to Buddhists as a 
symbol of devotion and fidelity, and it was figured on 
Asoka's pillars in this emblematic character. This shel- 
drake is usually found in pairs, and when one is shot 
the other will often hover near until it, too, falls a vic- 
tim to its conjugal love. 16 

A stage in this process of deification is given by Tylor 
in describing the veneration of a certain bird in Poly- 
nesia, as a Tahitian priest explained it to Dr. Ellis, the 
celebrated missionary-student of the South Seas. The 
priest said that his god was not always in the idol repre- 
senting it. "A god," he declared, "often came to and 
passed from an image in the body of a bird, and spiritual 
influence could be transmitted from an idol by imparting 
it by contact to certain valued kinds of feathers. " This 
bit of doctrine helps us to understand what Colonel St. 
Johnston has to tell in his recent thoughtful book 48 on the 
ethnology of Polynesia, of the special use of the feathers 


(mainly red) of particular birds in the insignia of chiefs, 
and in religious ceremonials; and he comments as 
follows : 

In the Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga groups the very special mats 
of the chiefs were edged with the much-prized red feathers 
usually obtained with great difficulty from Taverni Island. 
. . . In Tahiti the fan was associated with feathers in a pe- 
culiar idea of sacredness, and feathers given out by the priests 
at the temple at the time of the "Pa'e-atua" ceremony were taken 
home by the worshippers and tied on to special fans. These 
beautiful feathers of the Pacific were, of course, prized by an 
artistic people for their colors alone, but there seems to have 
been something more than that, something particularly con- 
nected with a divine royalty. In Hawaii the kahili, the sceptre 
of the king, was surmounted with special feathers. The royal 
cloaks (as in Peru) and the helmets had feathers thickly sewn 
on them; the para-kura, or sacred coronet of Tangier was made 
of red feathers; and the Pa'e-atua ceremony that I have just 
written of consisted of the unwrapping of the images of the 
gods, exposing them to the sun, oiling them, and then wrapping 
them once more in feathers — fresh feathers, brought by the 
worshippers, and given in exchange for the old ones, which 
were taken away as prized relics to be fastened to the sacred 

Can it be that the feathers represent divine birds, symbolic 
of the "Sky People" ? We know that many birds were peculiarly 
sacred (the tropic bird of Fiji might be mentioned among 
others), and the messages of the gods were said to have been 
at first transmitted by the birds, until the priests were taught 
to do so in the squeaky voices — possibly imitative of bird-cries — 
they adopted. 

Such deifications of birds took place elsewhere than 
in Fiji and Egypt. Charles de Kay has written a learned 
yet readable book 18 devoted to expounding the worship 
of birds in ancient Europe, and their gradual mergence 
into deities of human likeness. He calls attention to re- 
mains in early European lore indicating a very extensive 
connection of birds with gods, pointing to a worship of 


the bird itself as the living representative of a god, "or 
else to such a position of the bird toward a deity as to 
fairly permit the inference that at a period still more 
remote the bird itself was worshipped." The Poly- 
nesian practices detailed above certainly are of very 
ancient origin, probably coming to the islands with the 
earliest migrants from the East Indian mainlands; and 
the theology involved may be a lingering relic of the 
times and ideas described in De Kay's treatise. 

To carry these matters further is not within my plan, 
for they would lead us into the mazes of comparative 
mythology, which it is my purpose to avoid as far as 
possible, restricting myself to history, sayings, and allu- 
sions that pertain to real, not imaginary, birds.* 

The distinction I try to make between the mythical and 
the legendary or real, may be illustrated by the king- 
fisher — in this case, of course, the common species of 
southern Europe. Let us consider first the mythical side. 
Alcyone, daughter of /Eolus, the wind-god, impelled by 
love for her husband Ceyx, whom she found dead on 
the shore after a shipwreck, threw herself into the sea. 
The gods, rewarding their conjugal love, changed the 
pair into kingfishers. What connection exists between 
this, which is simply a classic yarn, and the ancient theory 
of the nidification of this species, I do not know; but 
the story was — now we are talking of the real bird, which 
the Greeks and Latins saw daily — that the kingfisher 
hatched its eggs at the time of the winter solstice in a 
nest shaped like a hollow sponge, and thought to be 

♦Nevertheless, I have made one exception by devoting a chap- 
ter to "a fabulous flock" of wholly fictitious birds, namely, the 
phenix, rukh (roc), simurgh and their fellows — all hatched from 
the same solar nest — because they have become familiar to us, by 
name, at least, in literature, symbolism, and proverbial sayings. 


solidly composed of fish-bones, which was set afloat, or 
at any rate floated, on the surface of the Mediterranean. 
The natural query how such a structure could survive the 
shock of waves led to the theory that Father yEolus made 
the winds "behave" during the brooding-time. As Pliny 
explains : "For seven days before the winter solstice, and 
for the same length of time after it, the sea becomes calm 
in order that the kingfishers may rear their young." 
Simonides, Plutarch, and many other classic authorities, 
testify to the same tradition, which seems to have be- 
longed particularly to the waters about Sicily. More 
recent writers kept alive the tender conceit. 

Along the coast the mourning halcyon's heard 
Lamenting sore her spouse's fate, 

are lines from Ariosto's verse almost duplicated by 
Camoens; and Southey — 

The halcyons brood around the foamless isles, 
The treacherous ocean has forsworn its wiles. 

while Dryden speaks of "halcyons brooding on a winter 
sea," and Drayton makes use of the legend in five differ- 
ent poems. It is a fact that in the region of southern 
Italy a period of calm weather ordinarily follows the 
blustering gales of late autumn, which may have sug- 
gested this poetic explanation; but one student believes 
that the story may have been developed from a far earlier 
tradition. "The Rhibus of Aryan mythology, storm- 
demons, slept for twelve nights [and days] about the 
winter solstice ... in the house of the sun-god Savitar." 
Such is the history behind our proverbial expression 
for tranquillity, and often it has been used very remotely 


from its original sense, as when in Henry VI Shakespeare 
makes La Pucelle exclaim: "Expect St. Martin's sum- 
mer, halcyon days," St. Martin's summer being the 
English name for that warm spell in November known to 
us as Indian summer. All this is an extended example 
of the kind of poetic myth which has been told of many 
different birds, and which in this book is left to be sought 
out in treatises on mythology. 

In contrast with this sort of tale I find many non- 
mythical notions, historical or existing, concerning the 
actual kingfisher, which properly belong to my scheme. 
One of the oldest is the custom formerly in vogue in 
England, and more recently in France, of turning this 
bird into a weathercock. The body of a mummified king- 
fisher with extended wings would be suspended by a 
thread, nicely balanced, in order to show the direction 
of the wind, as in that posture it would always turn its 
beak, even when hung inside the house, toward the point 
of the compass whence the breeze blew. Kent, in King 
Lear, speaks of rogues who 

Turn their halcyon beaks 
With every gale and vary of their masters. 

And after Shakespeare Marlowe, in his Jew of Malta, 

But how stands the wind? 

Into what corner peers my halcyon's bill? 

We are told mat the fishermen of the British and French 
coasts hang these kingfisher weathervanes in the rigging 
of their boats ; and it seems likely to me that it was among 
sailors that the custom began. 


Although Sir Thomas Browne 33 attributed "an occult 
and secret property" to this bird as an indicator of wind- 
drift, it does not otherwise appear that it had any magical 
reputation: yet the skin of a kingfisher was sure to be 
found among the stuffed crocodiles, grinning skulls and 
similar decorations of the consulting-room of a medieval 
"doctor," who himself rarely realized, perhaps, what a 
fakir he was. Moreover, we read "That its dried body 
kept in a house protected against lightning and kept 
moths out of garments." 

On the American continent, probably the nearest ap- 
proach to the "sacredness" discussed in a former para- 
graph, is the sincere veneration of their animal-gods, in- 
cluding a few birds, by the Zuriis and some other Village 
Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, which has been 
studied minutely by our ethnologists. Yet we read of 
many other sacred birds among the redmen. The red- 
headed woodpecker is regarded as the tutelary deity of 
the Omahas, and as the patron-saint of children, because, 
they say, its own family is kept in so safe a place. 
Pawnees have much the same sentiment toward the wren, 
which they call "laughing-bird" because it seems always 
happy. The crow was the sacred bird of the "ghost- 
dance" — a religious ceremony of high significance among 
the tribes of the Plains, as is explained in Chapter IX. 
The Navahos regard the mountain bluebird as sacred on 
account of its azure plumage, which (as something blue) 
is representative of the South ; and it is deemed the herald 
of the rising sun, which is their supreme image of God. 
One of their old men told Stewart Culin that "two blue 
birds stand at the door of the house in which [certain] 
gods dwell." 

In most cases among our Indians, as elsewhere, it is un- 


lawful to kill or eat such a bird, which indicates a rela- 
tion to totemism. Thus, as Powers 19 asserts, the Mono 
Indians of the Sierra Nevada, never kill their sacred black 
eagles, but pluck out the feathers of those that die and 
wear them on their heads. "When they succeed in cap- 
turing a young one, after a fortnight the village makes a 
great jubilation. ,, Some Eskimos will not eat gulls' 
eggs, which make men old and decrepit. 

Whatever tradition or superstition or other motive 
affected the choice of any bird as a tribal totem, or en- 
dowed it with "sacredness," practical considerations were 
surely influential. It is noticeable that the venerated ibis 
and hawk in Egypt were useful to the people as devourers 
of vermin — young crocodiles, poisonous snakes, grain- 
eating mice and so forth. Storks in Europe and India, 
and the "unclean" birds of Palestine forbidden to the 
Jews, were mostly carrion-eaters, and as such were de- 
sirable street-cleaners in village and camp. A tradition 
in the ^Lgean island Tenos is that Poseidon — a Greek St. 
Patrick — sent storks to clear the island of snakes, which 
originally were numerous there. Australian frontiers- 
men preserve the big kingfisher, dubbed "laughing- jack- 
ass," for the same good reason. The wiser men in early 
communities appreciated this kind of service by birds, 
and added a religious sanction to their admonition that 
such servants of mankind should not be killed. It was the 
primitive movement toward bird-protection, which, by 
the way, was first applied in this country to the scaveng- 
ing turkey-buzzards and carrion-crows of the Southern 

As for the smaller birds, where special regard was 
paid them it was owing, apart from the natural humane 
admiration and enjoyment of these pretty creatures, to 


the mystery and fiction of their being animated by spirits. 
When they were black, like ravens and cormorants, or 
were cruel night-prowlers, such as owls, or uttered dis- 
consolate cries, they were thought to be inhabited by 
dread, malignant, spirits "from night's Plutonian shore," 
as Poe expresses it, but when they had pretty plumage, 
pleasing ways and melodious voices, they were deemed 
the embodiment of beneficent and happy spirits — per- 
haps even those of departed relatives. 

Hence we have the notion that some birds are lucky 
and others unlucky in their relation to us. Those that 
bring good luck are mainly those kinds that associate 
themselves with civilization, such as the various robins, 
wrens and storks, the doves and the swallows. Even so, 
however, time and place must be considered in every case, 
for the dearest of little birds when it pecks at a window- 
pane, or seems bent on entering a cottage door will arouse 
tremors of fear in a superstitious heart — much more so 
a bird that ordinarily keeps aloof from mankind. Frazer 
records, in his essay on Scapegoats, that if a wild bird flies 
into a rural Malay's house, it must be carefully caught 
and smeared with oil, and must then be released into the 
open air with a formula of words adjuring it to take away 
all ill-luck. In antiquity Greek women seem to have done 
the same with any swallow they found inside the house, 
a custom mentioned by both Pythagoras and Plato — the 
latter humorously proposing to dismiss poets from his 
ideal State in the same manner. Such doings remind 
one of the function of the scapegoat ; and in fact, accord- 
ing to Frazer, the Hazuls, of the Carpathian Mountains, 
imagine they can transfer their freckles to the first 
swallow they see in the spring by uttering a certain com- 
mand to the bird. Are these practices distorted reminis- 


cences of the conjuring by the Hebrew shaman as de- 
scribed in the Old Testament ? 

This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing: 
He shall be brought into the priest. . . . Then shall the priest 
command to take for him that is to be cleaned two birds alive 
and clean, and cedar wood and scarlet and hyssop. And the 
priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an 
earthen vessel over running water. As for the living bird, he 
shall take it and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, 
and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird 
that was killed over the running water; and he shall sprinkle 
upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, 
and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird 
loose into the open field. (Lev. xiv, 27.) 

The matter of "luck" in this hocus-pocus seems to lie 
in the chance as to which birds is chosen to be "scapegoat," 
and so is allowed to remain alive, cleaning its feathers as 
best it may. Evidently, the bird that wishes to do noth- 
ing to offend anyone must go warily. A cuckoo, for ex- 
ample, may spoil the day for an English milkmaid by 
incautiously sounding its call before her breakfast. 

Such has been the mental attitude underlying the amaz- 
ing ideas and practices that will be found described in 
succeeding chapters of this collection of traditional bird- 
lore, much of which is so juvenile and absurd. Until 
one reviews the groping steps by which mankind ad- 
vanced with very uneven speed — a large body of it having 
yet hardly begun the progress, even among the "civilized" 
— from the crudest animism to a clearer and clearer com- 
prehension of "natural law in the physical world," he 
cannot understand how men gave full credence to fictions 
that the most superficial examination, or the simplest 
reasoning, would show were false, and trembled before 
the most imaginary of alarms. Add to this childish 


credulity the teachings of religious and political leaders 
who had much to gain by conserving the ignorance and 
faith of their followers; add again the fruitful influence 
of story-tellers and poets who utilized ancient legends 
and beliefs for literary advantage, and you have the his- 
tory and explanation of how so many primitive super- 
stitions and errors have survived to our day. 


SEVERAL nations and empires of both ancient and 
modern times have adopted birds as emblems of 
their sovereignty, or at least have placed promi- 
nently on their coats of arms and great seals the figures 
of birds. 

Among these the eagle — some species of the genus 
Aquila — takes precedence both in time and in importance. 
The most ancient recorded history of the human race is 
that engraved on the tablets and seals of chiefs who 
organized a civilization about the head of the Persian 
Gulf more than 4000 years before the beginning of the 
Christian era. These record by both text and pictures 
that the emblem of the Summerian city of Lagash, which 
ruled southern Mesopotamia long previous to its subjuga- 
tion by Babylonia about 3000 B. C, was an eagle "dis- 
played," that is, facing us with wings and legs spread 
and its head turned in profile. This figure was carried 
by the army of Lagash as a military standard; but a 
form of it with a lion's head was reserved as the special 
emblem of the Lagash gods, with which the royal house 
was identified — the king's standard. 

After the conquest of Babylonia by Assyria this eagle 
of Lagash was taken over by the conquerors, and appears 
on an Assyrian seal of the king of Ur many centuries 
later. "From this eagle," says Ward, 23 "in its heraldic 
attitude necessitated by its attack on two animals [as 



represented on many seals and decorations] was derived 
the two-headed eagle, in the effort to complete the 
bilateral symmetry. This double-headed eagle appears 
in Hittite art, and is continued down through Turkish and 
modern European symbolism." 

Among the host of rock-carvings in the Eyuk section 
of the mountains of Cappadocia (Pteria of the Greeks) 
that are attributed to the Hittites, Perrot and Chipiez 
found carvings of a double-headed eagle which they 
illustrate; 112 and they speak of them as often occurring. 
"Its position is always a conspicuous one — about a great 
sanctuary, the principal doorway to a palace, a castle 
wall, and so forth; rendering the suggestion that the 
Pterians used the symbol as a coat of arms." 

Dr. Ward thought the Assyrian two-headed figure of 
their national bird resulted from an artistic effort at 
symmetry, balancing the wings and feet outstretched on 
each side, but I cannot help feeling that here among the 
Hittites it had its origin in a deeper sentiment than that. 
It seems to me that it was a way of expressing the dual 
sex of their godhead, presupposed, in the crudeness of 
primitive nature-worship, to account for the condition 
of earthly things, male and female uniting for productive- 
ness — the old story of sky and earth as co-generators of 
all life. Many other symbols, particularly those of a 
phallic character, were used in Asiatic religions to typify 
the same idea; or perhaps the conception was of that 
divine duality, in the sense of co-equal power of Good 
and Evil, God and Satan, that later became so conspicuous 
in the doctrine of the ancient Persians. Could it have 
been a purified modification of this significance that made 
the eagle during the Mosaic period — if Bayley 24 is right 
— an emblem of the Holy Spirit? And Bayley adds 



that "its portrayal with two heads is said to have re- 
corded the double portion of the spirit bestowed on 

Old Mohammedan traditions, according to Dalton, 
give the name "hamca" to a fabulous creature identical 
with the bicephalous eagle carved on Hittite rock-faces. 
Dalton 25 says also that coins with this emblem were 
struck and issued by Malek el Sala Mohammed, one of 
the Sassanids, in 1217; and that this figure was engraved 
in the 13th century by Turkoman princes on the walls 
of their castles, and embroidered on their battle-flags. 

To the early Greeks the eagle was the messenger of 
Zeus. If, as asserted, it was the royal cognizance of the 
Etruscans, it came naturally to the Romans, by whom 
it was officially adopted for the Republic in 87 B. C, 
when a silver eagle, standing upright on a spear, its 
wings half raised, its head in profile to the left, and 
thunderbolts in its claws, was placed on the military 
standards borne at the head of all the legions in the 
army. This was in the second consulship of Caius 
Marius, who decreed certain other honors to be paid to 
the bird's image in the Curia. 

One need not accuse the Romans of merely copying the 
ancient monarchies of the East. If they thought of any- 
thing beyond the majestic appearance of the noble bird, 
it was to remember its association with their great god 
Jupiter — the counterpart of Zeus. Nothing is plainer as 
to the origin of the ideas that later took shape in the 
divinities of celestial residence than that Jupiter was the 
personification of the heavens ; and what is more natural 
than that the lightnings should be conceived of as his 
weapons? Once, early in his history, when Jupiter was 
equipping himself for a battle with the Titans, an eagle 


brought him his dart, since which time Jupiter's eagle has 
always been represented as holding thunderbolts in its 
talons. The bird thus became a symbol of supreme power, 
and a natural badge for soldiers. The emperors of im- 
perial Rome retained it on their standards, Hadrian 
changing its metal from silver to gold; and "the eagles 
of Rome" came to be a common figure of speech to ex- 
press her military prowess and imperial sway. 

By such a history, partly mythical, and partly practical 
and glorious, this bird came to typify imperialism in gen- 
eral. A golden eagle mounted on a spear, was the royal 
standard of the elder Cyrus, as it had been of his 

When Napoleon I. dreamed of universal conquest he 
revived on the regimental banners of his troops the 
insignia of his Roman predecessors in banditry — in fact 
he was entitled to do so, for he had inherited them by 
right of conquest from both Italy and Austria, the 
residuary legatees of Rome. Discontinued in favor of 
their family bees by the Bourbons, during their brief 
reign after the fall of Bonaparte, the eagle was restored 
to France by a decree of Louis Napoleon in 1852. There 
is a legend that a tame eagle was let loose before him 
when he landed in France from England to become 
President of the first French Republic. Now it is the 
proper finial for flagstaffs all over the world except, 
curiously, in France itself, where a wreath of laurel 
legally surmounts the tricolor of the Republic, which has 
discarded all reminders of royalty. Thus the pride of 
conquerors has dropped to the commonplace of fashion — 

Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, 
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. 


The destruction of the Italian and western half of the 
old Roman empire was by the hands of northern bar- 
barians who at first were mere conquerors and despoilers, 
but finally, affected by their contact with civilization and 
law, became residents in and rulers of Italy, and were 
proud to assume the titles and what they could of the 
dignity of Roman emperors. In the eighth century 
Charlemagne became substantially master of the western 
world, at least, and assumed the legionary eagle as he 
did the purple robes of an Augustus; and his successors 
held both with varying success until the tenth century, 
when German kings became supreme and in 962 founded 
that very unholy combination styled the Holy Roman 
Empire. For hundreds of years this fiction was main- 
tained. At times its eagle indicated a real lordship over 
all Europe ; between times the states broke apart, and, as 
each kept the royal standard, separate eagles contended 
for mastery. Thus Prussia and other German kingdoms 
retained on their shields the semblance of a "Roman" 
eagle ; and the Teutonic Knights carried it on their savage 
expeditions of "evangelization" to the eastern Baltic lands. 

All these were more or less conventional figures of 
the Bird of Jove in its natural form, but a heraldic figure 
with two heads turned, Janus like, in opposite directions, 
was soon to be revived in the region where, as we have 
seen, it had been familiar 2000 years before as the 
national emblem of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, 
which for hundreds of years contested with Rome, both 
the political and the ecclesiastical hegemony of the world. 
Just when this symbol came into favor at Constantinople 
is unknown, but one authority says it did not appear be- 
fore the tenth century. At that time the Eastern em- 
perors were recovering lost provinces and extending their 


rule until it included all the civilized part of western Asia, 
Greece, Bulgaria, southern Italy, and much of the islands 
and shores of the Mediterranean; and they asserted re- 
ligious supremacy, at least, over the rival European em- 
pire erected on Charlemagne's foundation. It would 
seem natural that at this prosperous period, when 
Byzantium proudly claimed, if she did not really possess 
all "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that 
was Rome," such a double-headed device might be 
adopted, signifying that she had united the western power 
with her own. The evidence of this motive is doubtful, 
however, for it is not until a much later date that the 
figure begins to be seen on coins and textiles, first at 
Trebizond, particularly in connection with the emperor 
Theodore Lascaris, who reigned at the beginning of the 
13th century. Dalton 25 suggests plausibly that this 
symbol may have become Byzantine through the circum- 
stance that this Lascaris had previously been despot of 
Nicomedia, in which province Bogaz-Keui and other 
Hittite remains were situated, and where the bicephalous 
carvings heretofore alluded to are still to be seen on rock- 
faces and ruins, always in association with royalty. 

It is very attractive to think that this form of eagle 
was chosen, as has been suggested, to express the fact 
that Constantinople was now lord over both halves, East 
and West, into which Diocletian had divided the original 
empire of Rome. Whether this idea was behind the 
choice I do not know, but at any rate the two-faced 
eagle became latterly the acknowledged ensign of imperial 
Byzantium, and as such was introduced into European 
royal heraldry, whether or not by means of the returning 
Crusaders, as commonly stated, remains obscure. 

In the 15th century what was left of the Holy Roman 


Empire became the heritage of the Austrian house of 
Hapsburg which had succeeded the German Hohen- 
stauffens; and to Sigismund, head of the house in that 
century, is ascribed the design in the Austrian arms of 
the two-headed eagle, looking right and left, as if to 
signify boastfully that he ruled both East and West. 
These were relative and indefinite domains, but as he 
had, by his crowning at Rome, received at least nominal 
sovereignty over the fragmentary remains in Greece of 
the ancient Eastern Empire, he was perhaps justified in 
adopting the Byzantine ensign as "captured colors'* ; but 
a rival was soon to present a stronger claim to these 
fragments and their badge. 

In this same period, that is in the middle of the 15th 
century, Ivan the Great of Russia was striving with high 
purpose and despotic strength to bring back under one 
sway the divided house of Muscovy, together with what- 
ever else he could obtain. To further this purpose he 
married, in 1472, Sophia Paleologos, niece of the last 
Byzantine emperor, getting with her Greece and hence a 
barren title to the throne of the Eastern empire — a barren 
title because its former domain was now over-run by the 
Turks, but very important in the fact that it included 
the headship of the Greek, or Orthodox, Church. From 
this time Russia as well as Austria has borne a two-faced 
eagle on its escutcheon; and, although both birds are 
from the same political nest, the feeling between them 
has been far from brotherly. 

It may be remarked here, parenthetically, that in Egypt 
the cult of the kingly eagle never flourished, for the 
griffon vulture, "far-sighted, ubiquitous, importunate," 
became the grim emblem of royal power; and a smaller 
vulture {Neophron pcrcnopterus) is called Pharaoh's 


chicken to this day by the fellaheen. By "eagle" in Semitic 
(Biblical) legends is usually meant the lammergeier. 

Prussia had kept a single-headed eagle as her cog- 
nizance in remembrance of her previous "Roman" great- 
ness; and it was retained by the German Empire when 
that was created by Bismarck half a century and more 
ago. From it the Kaiser designated the two German 
military orders — the Black Eagle and the superior Red 
Eagle; and Russia and Serbia have each instituted an 
order called White Eagle. The traditional eagle of 
Poland is represented as white on a black ground. It was 
displayed during the period of subjection following the 
partition of the country in 1795, with closed wings, but 
now, since 19 19, it spreads its pinions wide in the pride 
of freedom. 

In the years between 191 4 and 19 19 an allied party of 
hunters, enraged by their depredations, zvent gunning for 
these birds of prey, killed most of them and sorely 
wounded the rest! 

Although several species of real eagles inhabit the 
Mediterranean region and those parts of Europe and Asia 
where these nations lived, and warred, and passed away, 
and are somewhat confused in the mass of myth and tra- 
dition relating to them, the one chosen by Rome was 
the golden eagle, so called because of the golden gloss 
that suffuses the feathers of the neck in mature birds. 
Now we have this species of sea-eagle in the United 
States, and it has been from time immemorial the honored 
War-eagle of the native redmen. If it was needful at 
our political birth to put any sort of animal on our seal, 
and the choice was narrowed down to an eagle, it would 
have been far more appropriate to have chosen the golden 
rather than the white-headed or "bald" species — first be- 


cause the golden is in habits and appearance far the nobler 
of the two, and, second, because of the supreme regard 
in which it was held by all the North American aborigi- 
nes, who paid no respect whatever to the bald eagle. On 
the other hand, the white head and neck of our accepted 
species gives a distinctive mark to our coat of arms. 
The history of the adoption of this symbol of the United 
States of America is worth a paragraph. 

On July 4, 1776, on the afternoon following the morn- 
ing hours in which the Congress in Philadelphia had 
performed the momentous duty of proclaiming the inde- 
pendence of the United States, it dropped down to the 
consideration of its cockade, and appointed a committee 
to prepare a device for a Great Seal and coat-of-arms 
for the new republic. 26 Desiring to avoid European 
models, yet clinging to the traditions of art in these 
matters, the committee devised and offered in succession 
several complicated allegorical designs that were promptly 
and wisely rejected by the Congress. Finally, in 1782, the 
matter was left in the hands of Charles Thomson, Secre- 
tary of the Congress, and he at once consulted with 
William Barton of Philadelphia. They abandoned 
allegory and designed an eagle "displayed proper," that 
is, with a shield on its breast. Mr. Barton, who was 
learned in heraldry, explained that "the escutcheon being 
placed on the breast of the eagle displayed is a very 
ancient mode of bearing, and is truly imperial." To 
avoid an "imperial" effect, however, a concession was 
made to local prejudice by indicating plainly that the bird 
itself was the American bald eagle — unless, indeed, that 
happened to be the only one Barton knew ! 

This design was finally adopted in 1782. Since then 
the Great Seal has been re-cut several times, so that the 


bird in its imprint is now a far more reputable fowl than 
at first — looks less as if it were nailed on a barn-door 
pour encourager les autrcs. In its right claw it holds a 
spray of ripe olives as an emblem of a peaceful disposi- 
tion, and in its left an indication of resolution to en- 
force peace, in the form of American thunderbolts — 
the redman's arrows. 

There were men in the Congress in 1782, as well as 
out of it, who disliked using any eagle whatever as a 
feature of the arms of the Republic, feeling that it 
savored of the very spirit and customs against which the 
formation of this commonwealth was a protest. Among 
them stood that clear-headed master of common sense, 
Benjamin Franklin, who thought a thoroughly native and 
useful fowl, like the wild turkey, would make a far truer 
emblem for the new and busy nation. He added to the 
turkey's other good qualities that it was a bird of courage, 
remarking, with his own delightful humor, that it would 
not hesitate to attack any Redcoat that entered its barn- 

Franklin was right when he argued against the choice 
of the bald eagle, at any rate, as our national emblem. 
"He is," he said truly, "a bird of bad moral character ; 
he does not get his living honestly; you may have seen 
him perched on some dead tree, where, too lazy to fish for 
himself, he watches the labor of the fishing-hawk, and 
when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is 
bearing it to its nest the bald eagle pursues him and takes 
it from him. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little 
kingbird attacks him boldly. He is therefore by no means 
a proper emblem." 

None of these depreciatory things could Franklin have 
truly said of the skilful, self-supporting, and handsome 


golden eagle — a Bird of Freedom indeed. (Audubon 
named a western variety of it after General Washington.) 
This species was regarded with extreme veneration by 
the native redmen of this country. "Its feathers," says 
Dr. Brinton, the ethnologist, "composed the war-flag of 
the Creeks, and its image, carved in wood, or its stuffed 
skin, surmounted their council-lodges. None but an ap- 
proved warrior dare wear it among the Cherokees, and 
the Dakotas allowed such an honor only to him who 
first touched the corpse of the common foe. The 
Natchez and other tribes regarded it almost as a deity. 
The Zuni of New Mexico employed four of its feathers 
to represent the four winds when invoking the raingod." 
Hence a war-song of the O jib ways reported by School- 
craft : 

Hear my voice ye warlike birds ! 

I prepare a feast for you to batten on; 

I see you cross the enemy's lines; 

Like you I shall go. 

I wish the swiftness of your wings; 

I wish the vengeance of your claws; 

I muster my friends; 

I follow your flight. 

Doesn't this sound like a bit from the Saga of Harold 
Hadrada ? 

Mexico did better in choosing her crested eagle, the 
harpy ( Thrasaetus harpia),& magnificent representative of 
its race, renowned from Paraguay to Mexico for its hand- 
some black-and-white plumage adorned with a warrior's 
crest, and for its grand flight, dauntless courage and 
amazing endurance. Quesada tells us that the Aztecs 
called it the winged wolf. The princes of Tlascala wore 
its image on their breasts and on their shield as a symbol 


of royalty; and in both Mexico and Peru, where it was 
trained for sport in falconry, it was preferred to the 
puma, which also was taught to capture deer and young 
peccaries for its master, as is the cheeta in India. Cap- 
tive harpies are still set to fight dogs and wildcats in 
village arenas, and rarely are vanquished. 

The tradition is that the Aztecs, a northern Nahuatl 
tribe, escaping from the tyranny of the dominant Chiche- 
mecas, moved about A. D. 1325 into the valley of Mexico 
(Tenochtitlan), and settled upon certain islets in a 
marshy lake — the site of the subsequent City of Mexico ; 
and this safe site is said to have been pointed out to 
them by a sign from their gods — an eagle perched upon 
a prickly-pear cactus, the nopal, in the act of strangling 
a serpent. This is the picture Cortez engraved on his 
Great Seal, and Mexico has kept it to this day. 

Guatemala was a part of ancient Mexico ; and perched 
on the shield in Guatemala's coat-of-arms is the green or 
resplendent trogon {Plmromacrus mocinno), the native 
and antique name of which is quetzal. This is one of 
the most magnificent of birds, for its crested head and 
body (somewhat larger than a sparrow's) are iridescent 
green, the breast and under parts crimson, and the wings 
black overhung by long, plumy coverts. The quetzal's 
special ornament, however, is its bluish-green tail, eight 
or ten inches long, whose gleaming feathers curve down 
in the graceful sweep of a sabre. It has been called the 
most beautiful of American birds, and it is peculiar to 
Central America. 

How this trogon came to be Guatemala's national sym- 
bol, made familiar, by all its older postage-stamps, is a 
matter of religious history. One of the gods in the 
ancient Aztec pantheon was Quetzalcoatl, of whom it was 

4 o 


said in their legends "that he was of majestic presence, 
chaste in life, averse to war, wise and generous in action, 
and delighting in the cultivation of the arts of peace." 
He was the ruler of the realm far below the surface of 
the earth, where the sun shines at night, the abode of 
abundance where dwell happy souls; and there Quetzal- 
coatl abides until the time fixed for his return to men. 
The first part of the name of this beneficent god, asso- 
ciated with sunshine and green, growing things, meant 
in the Nahuatl language a large, handsome, green feather, 
such as were highly prized by the Aztecs and reserved for 
the decoration of their chiefs; and one tradition of the 
god's origin and equipment relates that he was furnished 
with a beard made of these plumes. These royal and 
venerated feathers were obtained from the trogon, which 
his worshippers called Quetzal-totl. The emerald-hued 
hummingbirds of the tropics also belonged to him. 

Although Mexico and Central America were "con- 
verted" to Christianity by a gospel of war and slavery, the 
ancient faith lived on in many simple hearts, especially in 
the remoter districts of the South, and nowhere more per- 
sistently than among the Mayas of Guatemala and Yuca- 
tan, whose pyramidal temples are moldering in their uncut 
forests. When, in 1825, Guatemala declared its inde- 
pendence and set up a local government, what more 
natural than that it should take as a national symbol the 
glorious bird that represented to its people the best in- 
fluence in their ancient history and the most hopeful sug- 
gestion for the future. 

In the religion of the Mayas of Yucatan the great god 
of light was Itsamna, one of whose titles was The Lord, 
the Eye of the Day — a truly picturesque description of 
the sun. A temple at Itzmal was consecrated to him 


under the double name Eye of Day-Bird of Fire. "In 
time of pestilence," as Dr. Brinton informs us, 27 "the 
people resorted to this temple, and at high noon a sacrifice 
was spread upon the altar. The moment the sun reached 
the zenith a bird of brilliant plumage, but which in fact 
was nothing else than a fiery flame shot from the sun, de- 
scended and consumed the offering in the sight of all." 
Another authority says that Midsummerday was cele- 
brated by similar rites. Hence was held sacred the flame- 
hued ara, or guacamaya, the red macaw. 

The Musicas, natives of the Colombian plateau where 
Bogota now stands, had a similar half-superstitious re- 
gard for this big red macaw, which they called "fire-bird." 
The general veneration for redness, prevalent throughout 
western tropical America, and in Polynesia, is doubtless 
a reflection of sun-worship. 

Let us turn to a lighter aspect of our theme. 

France rejoices, humorously, yet sincerely, in the cock 
as her emblem — the strutting, crowing, combative chan- 
ticleer that arouses respect while it tickles the French 
sense of fun. When curiosity led me to inquire how this 
odd representative for a glorious nation came into exis- 
tence, I was met by a complete lack of readily accessible 
information. The generally accepted theory seemed to 
be that it was to be explained by the likeness of sound be- 
tween the Latin word gallus, a dunghill cock, and Gallus, 
a Gaul — the general appellative by which the Romans 
of mid-Republic days designated the non-Italian, Keltic- 
speaking inhabitants of the country south and west of 
the Swiss Alps. But whence came the name "gaul" ? and 
why was a pun on it so apt that it has survived through long 
centuries? I knew, of course, of the yarn that Diodorus 
Siculus repeats: that in Keltica once ruled a famous man 



who had a daughter "tail and majestic" but unsatisfactory 
because she refused all the suitors who presented them- 
selves. Then Hercules came along, and the haughty 
maiden surrendered at Arras. The result was a son 
named Galetes — a lad of extraordinary virtues who be- 
came king and extended his grandfather's dominions. 
He called his subjects after his own name Galatians and 
his country Galatia. This is nonsense. Moreover 
"Galatia" is Greek, and was applied by the Greeks, long 
before the day of Diodorus, to the lands of a colony of 
Keltic-speaking migrants who had settled on the coast 
of Asia Minor, and became the Galatians to whom Paul 
wrote one of his Epistles. The Greek word Galatai was, 
however, a form of the earlier Keltai. 

As has been said, what we call Savoy and France 
were known to the Romans as Gallia, Gaul ; but this term 
had been familiar in Italy long before Caesar had estab- 
lished Roman power over the great region between the 
German forests and the sea that he tersely described as 
Omnia Gallia; and it seems to have originated in the fol- 
lowing way: 

About i ioo B. C. two wild tribes, the Umbrians and 
the Oscans, swept over the mountains from the northeast, 
and took possession of northern Italy. These invaders 
were Nordics, and used an antique form of Teutonic 
speech. They were resisted, attacked, and finally over- 
whelmed by the Etruscans, who about 800 B. C, when 
Etruria was at the height of its power, extended their 
rule to the Alps and the Umbrian State disappeared. In 
the sixth century new hordes, calling themselves Kymri, 
coming from the west, and speaking Keltic dialects, 
swarmed into northern Italy from the present France. 


The harried people north of the Po, themselves mostly 
descendants of the earlier invasion, spoke of these raiders 
by an old Teutonic epithet which the Romans heard and 
wrote as Gall us, the meaning of which was "stranger" — 
in this case "the enemy." 

The word G alius, Gaul or a Gaul, then, was an ancient 
Teutonic epithet inherited by the Romans from the 
Etruscans, and had in its origin no relation to gallns, 
the lord of the poultry-yard. It is most likely, indeed, 
that the term was given in contempt, as the Greeks called 
foreigners "barbarians" because they spoke some language 
which the Greeks did not understand; for the occupants 
of the valley of the Po at that time were of truly Ger- 
manic descent, and did not regard the round-headed, 
Alpine "Kelts" as kin in any sense, but rather as ancient 
foes. What the word on their lips actually was no one 
knows ; but it seems to have had a root gal or vol, inter- 
changeable in the sound (to non-native ears) of its initial 
letter, whence it appears that Galatai, Gael, Valais, 
Walloon, and similar names connected with Keltic history 
are allied in root-derivation. Wales, for example, to the 
early Teutonic immigrants into Britain was the country 
of the Wealas, i.e., the "foreigners" (who were Gaulish, 
Keltic-speaking Kymri) ; and the English are not yet 
quite free from that view of the Welsh. 

The opportunity to pun with gallus, a cock, is evident, 
just as was a bitter pun current in Martial's time between 
Gallia, a. female Gaul and gallia, a gall-nut ; but in all this 
there is nothing to answer the question why the pun of 
which we are in search — if there was such a pun — has 
endured so long. I think the answer lies in certain appear- 
ances and customs of the Keltic warriors. 



Plutarch, in his biography of Caius Marius, describes 
the Kymri fought by Marius, years before Caesar's 
campaigns, as wearing helmets surmounted by animal 
effigies of various kinds, and many tall feathers. 
Diodorus says the Gauls had red hair, and made it redder 
by dyeing it with lime. This fierce and flowing red head- 
dress must have appeared much like a cock's comb, to 
which the vainglorious strutting of the barbarians added 
a most realistic touch in the eyes of the disciplined legion- 
aries. Later, the Roman authorities in Gaul minted a coin 
or coins bearing a curious representation of a Gaulish 
helmet bearing a cock on its crest, illustrations of which 
are printed by G. R. Rothery in his A B C of Heraldry. 
Rothery also states that the bird appears on Gallo-Roman 
sculptures. Another writer asserts that Julius Caesar 
records that those Gauls that he encountered fought 
under a cock-standard, which he regarded as associated 
with a religious cult, but I have been unable to verify this 
interesting reference. Caesar does mention in his Com- 
mentaries that the Gauls were fierce fighters, and that 
one of their methods in personal combat was skilful kick- 
ing, like a game-cock's use of its spurs — a trick still em- 
ployed by French rowdies, and known as la savate. In 
the Romance speech of the south of France chanticleer 
is still gall. 

The question arises here in the mind of the naturalist: 
If the aboriginal Gauls really bore a "cock" on their 
banners and wore its feathers in their helmets (as the 
Alpine regiments in Italy now wear chanticleer's tail- 
plumes), what bird was it? They did not then possess 
the Oriental domestic fowls to which the name properly 
belongs, and had nothing among their wild birds re- 
sembling it except grouse. One of these wild grouse is 


the great black capercaille, a bold, handsome bird of 
the mountain forests, noted for its habit in spring of 
mounting a prominent tree and issuing a loud challenge to 
all rivals ; and one of its gaudy feathers is still the favor- 
ite ornament for his hat of the Tyrolean mountaineer. 
By the way, the cockade, that figured so extensively as 
a badge in the period of the French Revolution was so 
called because of its resemblance to a cock's comb. 

Now comes a break of several centuries in the record, 
illuminated by only a brief note in La Rousse's Encyclo- 
pedic, that in 12 14, after the Dauphin du Viennois had 
distinguished himself in combat with the English, an 
order of knights was formed styled L'Ordre du Coq; and 
that a white cock became an emblem of the dauphins of 
the Viennois line. 

The cock did not appear as a blazon when, after the 
Crusades, national coats-of-arms were being devised; 
nevertheless the le coq de France was not forgotten, for 
it was engraved on a medal struck to celebrate the birth 
of Louis XIII ( 1 60 1 ) . Then came the Revolution, when 
the old regime was overthrown; and in 1792 the First 
Republic put the cock on its escutcheon and on fts flag 
in place of the lilies of the fallen dynasty. When this 
uprising of the people had been suppressed, and Napoleon 
I had mounted the throne, in 1804, he substituted for it 
the Roman eagle, which he had inherited from his con- 
quests in Italy and Austria, and which was appropriate 
to his ambitious designs for world domination. This re- 
mained until Napoleon went to Elba, and then Louis 
XVIII brought back for a short time the Bourbon lilies ; 
yet medals and cartoons of the early Napoleonic era 
depict the Gallic cock chasing a runaway lion of Castile 
or a fleeing Austrian eagle, showing plainly what was 


the accepted symbol of French power in the eyes of the 
common folks of France. One medal bore the motto 
Je veille pour le nation. 

Napoleon soon returned from Elba only to be extin- 
guished at Waterloo, after which, during the regime of 
Louis Philippe, the figure of the Gallic cock was again 
mounted on the top of the regimental flagstaffs in place 
of the gilded eagle; an illustration of this finial is given 
in Armories et Drapeaux Frangais. Louis Philippe could 
do this legitimately, according to Rothery and others, 
because this bird was the crest of his family — the Bour- 
bons — in their early history in the south of France. The 
Gallic cock continued to perch on the banner-poles until 
the foundation of the second Empire under Louis 
Napoleon in 1852. Since then the "tricolor," originating 
in 1789 as the flag of the National Guard, and dispensing 
with all devices, has waved over France. Officially bold 
chanticleer was thus dethroned; but in the late World 
War, as in all previous periods of public excitement, the 
ancient image of French nationality has been revived, as 
the illustrated periodicals and books of the time show; 
and, much as they revere the tricolor, the soldiers still feel 
that it is le coq Gaulois that in 19 18 again struck down 
the black eagles of their ancient foes. 

Juvenal's sixth Satire, in which he castigates the 
Roman women of his day for their sins and follies, con- 
tains a line, thrown in as a mere side-remark — 

Rara avis in terris, negroque similima cygno — 

which has become the most memorable line in the whole 
homily. It has been variously translated, most literally, 
perhaps, by Madan: "A rare bird in the earth, and very 


like a black swan." The comparison was meant to indi- 
cate something improbable to the point of absurdity; and 
in that sense has rara avis been used ever since. 

For more than fifteen hundred years Juvenal's expres- 
sion for extreme rarity held good; but on January 6, 
1697, tri e Dutch navigator Willem de Vlaming, visiting 
the southwestern coast of Australia, sent two boats ashore 
to explore the present harbor of Perth. "There their 
crews first saw two and then more black swans, of which 
they caught four, taking two of them alive to Batavia; 
and Valentyne, who several years later recounted this 
voyage, gives in his work a plate representing the ship, 
boats and birds at the mouth of what is now known from 
this circumstance as Swan River, the most important 
stream of the thriving colony now State of Western 
Australia, which has adopted this very bird as its armorial 

Another Australian bird, that, like the black swan, has 
obtained a picturesque immortality in a coat-of-arms ; 
and on postage stamps, is the beautiful lyre-bird, first dis- 
covered in New South Wales in 1789, and now a feature 
in the armorial bearings of that State in the Australian 
Commonwealth. New Zealand's stamps show the apteryx 
(kiwi) and emeu. 

One might extend this chapter by remarking on various 
birds popularly identified with certain countries, as the 
ibis with Egypt, the nightingale with England and Persia, 
the condor with Peru, the red grouse with Scotland, the 
ptarmigan with Newfoundland, and so on. Then might 
be given a list of birds w T hose feathers belonged ex- 
clusively to chieftanship, and so had a sort of tribal sig- 
nificance. Thus in Hawaii a honeysucker, the mamo, 
furnished for the adornment of chiefs alone the rich 


yellow feathers of which "royal" cloaks were made; the 
Inca "emperors" of Peru, before the Spanish conquest, re- 
served to themselves the rose-tinted plumage of an 
Andean water-bird; an African chief affected the long 
tail-plumes of the widowbird — and so forth. 

Only one of these locally revered birds entices me to 
linger a moment — the nightingale, beloved of English 
poets, whose oriental equivalent is the Persian bulbul. 
The mingled tragedies of the nightingale and the swallow 
form the theme of one of the most famous as well as 
sentimental legends of Greek mythology. These myths, 
strangely confused by different narrators, have been un- 
ravelled by the scholarly skill of Miss Margaret Verrall 
in her Mythology of Ancient Athens; 108 and her analysis 
throws light on the way the Greek imagination, from pre- 
historic bards down to the vase-decorators of the classic 
era, and to the dramatists Sophocles, ^Eschylus, and 
Aristophanes, dealt with birds — a very curious study. 
Miss Verrall reminds us that a word is necessary as to 
the names of the Attic tale. "We are accustomed, bur- 
dened as we are with Ovidian association, to think of 
Philomela as the nightingale. Such was not the version 
of Apollodorus, nor, so far as I know, of any earlier 
Greek writer. According to Apollodorus, Procne became 
the nightingale ('a^Swv) and Philomela the swallow (x^8cov) 
It was Philomela who had her tongue cut out, a tale that 
would never have been told of the nightingale, but which 
fitted well with the short restless chirp of the swallow. 
To speak a barbarian tongue was 'to mutter like a 
swallow.' " 

But there has arisen in Persia a literature of the night- 
ingale, or "bulbul," springing from a pathetic legend — 
if it is not simply poetic fancy — that as the bird pours 
forth its song "in a continuous strain of melody" it is 


pressing its breast against a rose-thorn to ease its heart's 
pain. Giles Fletcher, who had been attached to one of 
Queen Elizabeth's missions to Russia, and perhaps in that 
way picked up the suggestion, used it in one of his love- 
poems in a stanza that is a very queer mixture of two 
distinct fancies and a wrong sex, for the thrush that 
sings is not the one that has any occasion to weep about 

So Philomel, perched on an aspen sprig, 

Weeps all the night her lost virginity, 
And sings her sad tale to the merry twig, 

That dances at such joyful mystery. 

Ne ever lets sweet rest invade her eye, 
But leaning on a thorn her dainty chest 
For fear soft sleep should steal into her breast 

Expresses in her song grief not to be expressed. 

The poetic vision over which Hafiz and others have 
sighed and sung in the fragrant gardens of Shiraz seems 
to owe nothing to the Greek tale, and to them the plain- 
tive note in the bird's melody is not an expression of 
bitter woe, but only bespeaks regret whenever a rose is 
plucked. They will tell you tearfully that the bulbul will 
hover about a rosebush in spring, till, overpowered by 
the sweetness of its blossoms, the distracted bird falls 
senseless to the ground. The rose is supposed to burst 
into flower at the opening song of its winged lover. You 
may place a handful of fragrant herbs and flowers before 
the nightingale, say the Persian poets, yet he wishes not 
in his constant and faithful heart for more than the 
sweet breath of his beloved rose — 

Though rich the spot 
With every flower the earth has got, 
What is it to the nightingale 
If there his darling rose is not. 


But romantic stories of the association of the queen of 
flowers with the prince of birds are many, and the reader 
may easily find more of them. In a legend told by the 
Persian poet Attarall the birds once appeared before 
King Solomon and complained that they could not sleep 
because of the nightly wailings of the bulbul, who ex- 
cused himself on the plea that his love for the rose was 
the cause of irrepressible grief. This is the tradition to 
which Byron alludes in The Giaour: 

The rose o'er crag or vale, 
Sultana of the nightingale, 

The maid for whom his melody, 
His thousand songs, are heard on high, 
Blooms blushing to her lover's tale — 
His queen, the garden queen, the rose, 
Unbent by winds, unchilled by snows. 



tMONG the many proverbial expressions relating to 
r\ birds, none, perhaps, is more often on the tongue 
than that which implies that the ostrich has the 
habit of sticking its head in the sand and regarding itself 
as thus made invisible. The oldest written authority 
known to me for this notion is the Historical Library of 
Diodorus Siculus. Describing Arabia and its products 
Diodorus writes: 

It produces likewise Beasts of a double nature and mixt 
Shape; amongst whom are those that are called Strathocameli, 
who have the Shape both of a Camel and an Ostrich ... so that 
this creature seems both terrestrial and volatile, a Land-Beast 
and a Bird: But being not able to fly by reason of the Bulk 
of her body, she runs upon the Ground as Swift as if she flew 
in the air ; and when she is pursued by Horsemen with her Feet she 
hurls the Stones that are under her, and many times kills the 
Pursuers with the Blows and Strokes they receive. When she 
is near being taken, she thrusts her Head under a Shrub or 
some such like Cover; not (as some suppose) through Folly or 
Blockishness, as if she would not see or be seen by them, but 
because her head is the tenderest Part of her Body. 109 

It would appear from this that Diodorus was anticipat- 
ing me by quoting an ancient legend only to show how 
erroneous it was; but the notion has survived his expla- 
nation, and supplies a figure of speech most useful to 
polemic editors and orators, nor does anyone seem to care 
whether or not it expresses a truth. The only founda- 


tion I can find or imagine for the origin of this so persis- 
tent and popular error in ornithology is that when the 
bird is brooding or resting it usually stretches its head 
and neck along the ground, and is likely to keep this pros- 
trate position in cautious stillness as long as it thinks it 
has not been observed by whatever it fears. The futile 
trick of hiding its head alone has been attributed to var- 
ious other birds equally innocent. 

Ostriches in ancient times roamed the deserts of the 
East from the Atlas to the Indus, and they came to hold 
a very sinister position in the estimation of the early in- 
habitants of Mesopotamia, as we learn from the seals and 
tablets of Babylonia. There the eagle had become the 
type of the principle of Good in the universe, as is else- 
where described ; and a composite monster, to which the 
general term "dragon" is applied, represented the prin- 
ciple of Evil. The earliest rude conception of this 
monster gave it a beast's body (sometimes a crocodile's 
but usually a lion's), always with a bird's wings, tail, etc. 
"From conceiving of the dragon as a monster having a 
bird's head as well as wings and tail, and feathers over 
the body, the transition," as Dr. Ward 23 remarks, "was 
not difficult to regard it entirely as a -bird. But for this 
the favorite form was that of an ostrich ... the largest 
bird known, a mysterious inhabitant of the deserts, swift 
to escape and dangerous to attack. No other bird was 
so aptly the emblem of power for mischief. . . . Ac- 
cordingly, in the period of about the eighth to the seventh 
centuries, B. C, the contest of Marduk, representing 
Good in the form of a human hero or sometimes as an 
eagle, with an ostrich, or often a pair of them, repre- 
senting the evil demon Tiamat, was a favorite subject 


with Babylonian artists in the valleys of the Tigris and 

In view of their inheritance of these ideas it is no 
wonder that Oriental writers far more recent told strange 
tales about this bird, especially as to its domestic habits, 
as is reflected in the book of Job, where a versified render- 
ing of one passage (xxxix, 15, 16) runs thus: 

Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? 

Or wings and feathers unto the ostrich? 

Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, 

And warmeth them in the dust, 

And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, 

Or that the wild beast may break them? 

She is hardened against her young ones 

As though they were not hers: 

Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, 

Neither hath he imparted to her understanding. 

This was more elegant than exact, for ostriches are ex- 
ceedingly watchful and patient parents, as they have need 
to be, considering the perilous exposure of their nests on 
the ground, and the great number of enemies to which 
both eggs and young are exposed in the wilderness. 
Major S. Hamilton, 110 than whom there is no better au- 
thority, testifies to this. "The hen-bird," he says, "sits 
on the eggs by day and the cock relieves her at night, 
so that the eggs are never left unguarded during incuba- 
tion." The chicks are able to take care of themselves 
after a day or two, and there is no more foundation in 
fact for the Biblical charge of cruelty than for that other 
Oriental fable that this bird hatches its eggs not by brood- 
ing but by the rays of warmth and light from her eyes. 
"Both birds are employed," the fable reads, "for if the 
gaze is suspended for only one moment the eggs are 


addled, whereupon these bad ones are at once broken." 
It is to this fiction that Southey refers in Thalaba, the 

With such a look as fables say 

The mother ostrich fixes on her eggs, 

Till that intense affection 

Kindle its light of life. 

Hence, as Burnaby tells us, ostrich eggs were hung in 
some Mohammedan mosques as a reminder that "God 
will break evil-doers as the ostrich her worthless eggs." 
Professor E. A. Grosvenor notes in his elaborate volumes 
on Constantinople, that in the turbeh of Eyouk, the 
holiest building and shrine in the Ottoman world, are 
suspended "olive lamps and ostrich eggs, the latter sig- 
nificant of patience and faith." Their meanings or at 
any rate the interpretations vary locally, but the shells 
themselves are favorite mosque ornaments all over Islam, 
and an extensive trans-Saharan caravan-trade in them 
still exists. Ostrich eggs as well as feathers were im- 
ported into ancient Egypt and Phoenicia from the Land 
of Punt (Somaliland) and their shells have been re- 
covered from early tombs, or sometimes clay models of 
them, as at Hu, where Petrie found an example decorated 
with an imitation of the network of cords by which it 
could be carried about, just as is done to this day by the 
Central-African negroes, who utilize these shells as water- 
bottles, and carry a bundle of them in a netting bag. 
Other examples were painted; and Wilkinson surmises 
that these were suspended in the temples of the ancient 
Egyptians as they now are in those of the Copts. The 
Punic tombs about Carthage, and those of Mycenae, in 
Greece, have yielded painted shells of these eggs; and 


five were exhumed from an Etruscan tomb, ornamented 
with bands of fantastic figures of animals either engraved 
or painted on the shell, the incised lines filled with gold ; 
what purpose they served, or whether any religious sig- 
nificance was attached to them, is not known. Eggs are 
still to be found in many Spanish churches hanging near 
the Altar: they are usually goose-eggs, but may be a 
reflection of the former Moorish liking for those of the 
ostrich in their houses of worship. 

To return for a moment to the notion that the ostrich 
breaks any eggs that become addled (by the way, how 
could the bird know which were "gone bad" ?), let me add 
a preposterous variation of this, quoted from a German 
source by Goldsmith 32 in relation to the rhea, the South 
American cousin of the ostrich — all, of course, arrant 

The male compels twenty or more females to lay their eggs 
in one nest; he then, when they have done laying, chases them 
away and places himself upon the eggs; however, he takes the 
singular precaution of laying two of the number aside, which 
he does not sit upon. When the young one comes forth these 
two eggs are addled; which the male having foreseen, breaks 
one and then the other, upon which multitudes of flies are 
found to settle; and these supply the young brood with a 
sufficiency of provision till they are able to shift for themselves. 

Another popular saying is: "I have the digestion of 
an ostrich !" 

What does this mean? Ancient books went so far as 
to say that ostriches subsisted on iron alone, although 
they did not take the trouble to explain where in the 
desert they could obtain this vigorous diet. A picture in 
one of the Beast Books gives a recognizable sketch of 
the bird with a great key in its bill and near by a horse- 


shoe for a second course. In heraldry, which is a 
museum of antique notions, the ostrich, when used as a 
bearing, is always depicted as holding in its mouth a 
Passion-nail (emblem of the Church militant), or a horse- 
shoe (reminder of knightly Prowess on horseback), or 
a key (signifying religious and temporal power). 

An amusing passage in Sir Thomas Browne's famous 
book, Common and Vulgar Errors 33 — which is a queer 
combination of sagacity, ignorance, superstition and 
credulity — is his solemn argument against the belief 
prevalent in his day (1605-82) that ostriches ate iron; 
but he quotes his predecessors from Aristotle down to 
show how many philosophers have given it credence with- 
out proof. The great misfortune of medieval thinkers 
appears to have been that they were bound hand and foot 
to the dead knowledge contained in ancient Greek and 
Latin books — a sort of mental mortmain that blocked 
any progress in science. They made of Aristotle, 
especially, a sort of sacred fetish, whose statements and 
conclusions must not be "checked" by any fresh observa- 
tion or experiment. Browne was one of the first to ex- 
hibit a little independence of judgment, and to suspect 
that possibly, as Lowell puts it, "they didn't know every- 
thing down in Judee." 

"As for Pliny," Sir Thomas informs us, "he saith 
plainly that the ostrich concocteth whatever it eateth. 
Now the Doctor acknowledgeth it eats iron: ergo, ac- 
cording to Pliny it concocts iron. Africandus tells us 
that it devours iron. Farnelius is so far from extenua- 
ting the matter that he plainly confirms it, and shows that 
this concoction is performed by the nature of its whole 
essence. As for Riolanus, his denial without ground we 
regard not. Albertus speaks not of iron but of stones 


which it swallows and excludes again without nutriment." 
This is an excellent example of the way those old 
fellows considered a matter of fact as if it were one of 
opinion — as if the belief or non-belief of a bunch of 
ancients, who knew little or nothing of the subject, made 
a thing so or not so. Sir Thomas seems to have been 
struggling out of this fog of metaphysics and shyly 
squinting at the facts of nature ; yet it is hard to follow 
his logic to the conclusion that the allegation of iron-eat- 
ing and "concocting" (by which I suppose digestion is 
meant) is not true, but he was right. The poets, how- 
ever, clung to the story. John Skelton (1460-1529) in 
his long poem Phyllip Sparrow writes of 

The estryge that wyll eate 

An horshowe so great 

In the stede of meate 

Such feruent heat 

His stomake doth freat [fret]. 

Ben Johnson makes one of his characters in Every Man 
in his Humor assure another, who declares he could eat 
the very sword-hilts for hunger, that this is evidence that 
he has good digestive power — "You have an ostrich's 
stomach." And in Shakespeare's Henry VI is the re- 
mark: "I'll make thee eat iron like an ostrich, and 
swallow my sword." 

Readers of Goldsmith's Animated Nature, 32 published 
more than a century later (1774) as a popular book of 
instruction in natural history (about which he knew 
nothing by practical observation outside of an Irish 
county or two), learned that ostriches "will devour 
leather, hair, glass, stones, anything that is given them, 
but all metals lose a part of their weight and often the 


extremities of the figure." That the people remembered 
this is shown by the fact that zoological gardens have lost 
many specimens of these birds, which seem to have a very 
weak sense of taste, because of their swallowing copper 
coins and other metallic objects fed to them by experi- 
mental visitors, which they could neither assimilate nor 
get rid of. It is quite likely that the bird's reputation for 
living on iron was derived from similarly feeding the cap- 
tive specimens kept for show in Rome and various East- 
ern cities, the fatal results of which were unnoticed by 
the populace. The wild ostrich contents itself with tak- 
ing into its gizzard a few small stones, perhaps picked 
up and swallowed accidentally, which assist it in grinding 
hard food, as is the habit of many ground-feeding fowls. 
Much the same delusion exists with regard to the emeu. 

If I were to repeat a tithe of the absurdities and 
medical superstitions (or pure quackery) related of birds 
in the "bestiaries," as the books of the later medieval pe- 
riod answering to our natural histories were named, the 
reader would soon tire of my pages; but partly as a 
sample, and partly because the pelican is not only 
familiar in America but is constantly met in proverbs, in 
heraldry, and in ecclesiastical art and legend, I think it 
worth while to give some early explanations of the 
curious notion expressed in the heraldic phrase "the 
pelican in its piety." It stands for a very ancient mis- 
understanding of the action of a mother-pelican alight- 
ing on her nest, and opening her beak so that her young 
ones may pick from her pouch the predigested fish she 
offers them within it. As the interior of her mouth is 
reddish, she appeared to some imaginative observer long 
ago to display a bleeding breast at which her nestlings 
were plucking. Now observe how, according to Hazlitt, 84 


that medieval nature- fakir, Philip de Thaum, who wrote 
The Anglo-Norman Bestiary about 1120, embroiders his 
ignorance to gratify the appetite of his age for marvels — 
sensations, as we say nowadays — and so sell his book: 

"Of such a nature it is," he says of the pelican, "when it comes 
to its young birds, and they are great and handsome, and it 
will fondle them, cover them with its wings; the little birds 
are fierce, take to pecking it — desire to eat it and pick out its 
two eyes; then it pecks and takes them, and slays them with 
torment; and thereupon leaves them — leaves them lying dead — 
then returns on the third day, is grieved to find them dead, and 
makes such lamentation, when it sees its little birds dead, that 
with its beak it strikes its body that the blood issues forth; the 
blood goes dropping, and falls on its young birds — the blood 
has such quality that by it they come to life " 

and so on, all in sober earnest. But he made a botch of 
it, for earlier and better accounts show that the male 
bird kills the youngsters because when they begin to grow 
large they rebel at his control and provoke him ; when the 
mother returns she brings them to life by pouring over 
them her blood. Moreover, there crept in a further cor- 
ruption of the legend to the effect that the nestlings were 
killed by snakes, as Drayton writes in his Noah's Flood: 

By them there sat the loving pellican 

Whose young ones, poison'd by the serpent's sting, 

With her own blood again to life doth bring. 

St. Jerome seems to have had this version in mind 
when he made the Christian application, saying that as 
the pelican's young, "killed by serpents," were saved by 
the mother's blood, so was the salvation by the Christ re- 
lated to those dead in sin. This point is elaborated some- 
what in my chapter on Symbolism. 


Before I leave this bird I want to quote a lovely para- 
graph on pelican habits, far more modern than anything 
"medieval," for it is taken from the Arctic Zoology 
(1784) of Thomas Pennant, who was a good naturalist, 
but evidently a little credulous, although the first half of 
the quotation does not overstrain our faith. He is speak- 
ing of pelicans that he saw in Australia, and explains: 

They feed upon fish, which they take sometimes by plunging 
from a great height in the air and seizing like the 
gannet; at other times they fish in concert, swimming 
in flocks, and forming a large circle in the great rivers 
which they gradually contract, beating the water with their 
wings and feet in order to drive the fish into the centre ; which 
when they approach they open their vast mouths and fill their 
pouches with their prey, then incline their bills to empty the 
bag of the waters ; after which they swim to shore and eat their 
booty in quiet. ... It is said that when they make their nests 
in the dry deserts, they carry the water to their young in the 
vast pouches, and that the lions and beasts of prey come there 
to quench their thirst, sparing the young, the cause of this 
salutary provision. Possibly on this account the Egyptians style 
this bird the camel of the river— the Persians tacub, or water- 

Now let us look at the Trochilus legend, and trace how 
an African plover became changed into an American 
hummingbird. The story, first published by Herodotus, 
that some sort of bird enters the mouth of a Nile crocodile 
dozing on the sand with its jaws open, and picks bits of 
food from the palate and teeth, apparently to the rep- 
tile's satisfaction, is not altogether untrue. The bird 
alluded to is the Egyptian plover, which closely re- 
sembles the common British lapwing; and there seems 
to be no doubt that something of the sort does really 
take place when crocodiles are lying with open mouth 
on the Nile bank, as they often do. This lapwing has a 


tall, pointed crest standing up like a spur on the top of 
its head, and this fact gives "point," in more senses than 
one, to the extraordinary version of the Herodotus story 
in one of the old plays, The White Devil, by John Web- 
ster (1612), where an actor says: 

"Stay, my lord ! I'll tell you a tale. The crocodile, which 
lives in the river Nilus, hath a worm breeds i' the teeth of 't, 
which puts it to extreme anguish : a little bird, no bigger than 
a wren, is barber-surgeon to this crocodile; flies into the jaws 
of 't, picks out the worm, and brings present remedy. The fish, 
glad of ease, but ingrateful to her that did it, that the bird may 
not talk largely of her abroad for nonpayment, closeth her 
chaps, intending to swallow her, and so put her to perpetual 
silence. But nature, loathing such ingratitude, hath armed this 
bird with a quill or prick on the head, top o' the which wounds 
the crocodile i' the mouth, forceth her open her bloody prison, 
and away flies the pretty tooth-picker from her cruel patient." 

A most curious series of mistakes has arisen around 
this matter. Linguists tell us that the common name 
among the ancient Greeks for a plover was trochilus 
(rpoxtW), and that this is the word used by Herodotus for 
his crocodile-bird. But in certain passages of his His- 
tory of Animals Aristotle uses this word to designate a 
wren ; it has been supposed that this was a copyist's error, 
writing carelessly rpoxiAos for Vx i ^ 0? > but it was repeated 
by Pliny in recounting what Herodotus had related, and 
this naturally led to the statement by some medieval com- 
pilers that the crocodile's tooth-cleaner was a wren. 
This, however, is not the limit of the confusion, for when 
American hummingbirds became known in Europe, and 
were placed by some naturalists of the 17th century in 
the Linnaean genus (Trochilus) with the wrens, one 
writer at least, Paul Lucas, 1774 (if Brewer's Handbook 
may be trusted), asserted that the hummingbird as well 


as the lapwing entered the jaws of Egyptian crocodiles — 
and that he had seen them do it ! 

This curious tissue of right and wrong was still fur- 
ther embroidered by somebody's assertion that the 
diminutive attendant's kindly purpose was "to pick from 
the teeth a little insect" that greatly annoyed the huge 
reptile. Even Tom Moore knew no better than to write 
in Lalla Rookh of 

The puny bird that dares with pleasing hum 
Within the crocodile's stretched jaws to come. 

The full humor of this will be perceived by those who 
remember that hummingbirds are exclusively American — 
not Oriental. Finally Linnaeus confirmed all this mixture 
of mistakes by fastening the name Trochilidae on the 
Hummingbird family. 

Finally, John Josselyn, Gent., in his Rarities of Nezv 
England, calls our American chimney-swift a "troculus," 
and describes its nesting absurdly thus : 

The troculus— a small bird, black and white, no bigger than 
a swallow, the points of whose feathers are sharp, which they 
stick into the sides of the chymney (to rest themselves), their 
legs being exceedingly short) where they breed in nests made 
like a swallow's nest, but of a glewy substance; and which is 
not fastened to the chymney as a swallow's nest, but hangs 
down the chymney by a clew-like string a yard long. They 
commonly have four or five young ones; and when they go 
away, which is much about the time that swallows used to de- 
part, they never fail to throw down one of their young birds 
into the room by way of gratitude. I have more than once ob- 
served, that, against the ruin of the family, these birds will 
suddenly forsake the house, and come no more. 

Another unfortunate but long-accepted designation in 
systematic ornithology was attached by Linnaeus to the 


great bird of paradise in naming this species Paradisca 
apoda (footless) ; and it was done through an even worse 
misunderstanding than in the case of Trochilus — or else 
as a careless joke. It is true that at that time no perfect 
specimen had been seen in Europe ; yet it is hard to under- 
stand Linne's act, for he could not have put more faith 
in the alleged natural footlessness of this bird than in the 
many other marvelous qualities ascribed to it. Wallace 
has recounted some of these myths in his Malay 
Archipelago : 35 

When the earliest European voyagers reached the Moluccas 
in search of cloves and nutmegs, they were presented with the 
dried skins of birds so strange and beautiful as to excite the 
admiration even of those wealth-seeking rovers. The Malay 
traders gave them the name of "manuk dewata," or God's birds ; 
and the Portuguese, finding they had no feet or wings, and being 
unable to learn anything authentic about them, called them 
"passares de sol" or birds of the sun; while the learned Dutch- 
men, who wrote in Latin, called them avis paradeus or paradise- 
bird. Jan van Linschoten gives these names in 1598, and tells 
las that no one has seen these birds alive, for they live in the 
air, always turning toward the sun, and never lighting on the 
earth till they die; for they have neither feet nor wings, as he 
adds, may be seen by the birds carried to India, and sometimes 
to Holland, but being very costly they were rarely seen in 
Europe. More than a hundred years later Mr. William Fennel, 
who accompanied Dampier . . . saw specimens at Amboyna 
and was told that they came to Banda to eat nutmegs, which in- 
toxicated them, and made them fall senseless, when they were 
killed by ants. [Tavernier explains that the ants ate away their 
legs — thus accounting for the footlessness.] 

It is to this nutmeg dissipation that Tom Moore alludes 
in Lalla Rookh: 

Those golden birds that in the spice time drop 
About the gardens, drunk with that sweet fruit 
Whose scent has lured them o'er the summer flood. 


The unromantic fact was that the natives of the Moluccas 
then, as now, after skilfully shooting with arrows or 
blow-guns and skinning the (male) birds, cut off the legs 
and dusky wings and folded the prepared skin about a 
stick run through the body and mouth, in which form 
"paradise-birds" continued to come to millinery markets 
in New York and London. A somewhat similar blunder 
in respect to swallows (or swifts?) has given us in the 
martlet, as a heraldic figure, a quaint perpetuation of an 
error in natural history. "Even at the present day," 
remarks Fox Davies, 111 speaking of England, "it is popu- 
larly believed that the swallow has no feet ... at any 
rate the heraldic swallow is never represented with feet, 
the legs terminating with the feathers that cover the 

I do not know where Dryden got the information sug- 
gesting his comparison, in Threnodia Augustalis, "like 
birds of paradise that lived on mountain dew" ; but the 
idea is as fanciful as the modern Malay fiction that this 
bird drops its egg, which bursts as it approaches the 
earth, releasing a fully developed young bird. Another 
account is that the hen lays her eggs on the back of her 
mate. Both theories are wild guesses in satisfaction of 
ignorance, for no one yet knows precisely the breeding- 
habits of these shy forest-birds, the females of which are 
rarely seen. Dryden may have read that in Mexico, as 
a Spanish traveller reported, hummingbirds live on dew ; 
or he may have heard of the medieval notion that ravens 
were left to be nourished by the dews of heaven, and, 
with poetic license to disregard classification, transferred 
the feat to the fruit-eating birds of paradise. 

Next comes that old yarn about geese that grow on 
trees. When or where it arose nobody knows, but some- 


where in the Middle Ages, for Max Miiller quotes a car- 
dinal of the nth century who represented the goslings 
as bursting, fully fledged, from fruit resembling apples. 
A century later (1187) Giraldus Cambrensis, an arch- 
deacon reproving laxity among the priests in Ireland, con- 
demns the practice of eating barnacle geese in Lent on 
the plea that they are fish; and soon afterward Innocent 
III forbade it by decree. Queer variants soon appeared. 
A legend relating to Ireland inscribed on a Genoese 
world-map, and described by Dr. Edward L. Stevenson 
in a publication of The Hispanic Society (New York) 
reads: "Certain of their trees bear fruit which, decaying 
within, produces a worm which, as it subsequently de- 
velops, becomes hairy and feathered, and, provided 
wings, flies like a bird." 

An extensive clerical literature grew up in Europe in 
discussion of the ethics of this matter, for the monks 
liked good eating and their Lenten fare was miserably 
scanty, and a great variety of explanations of the alleged 
marine birth of these birds — ordinary geese (Branta 
bernicla) when mature — were contrived. That some- 
thing of the kind was true nobody in authority denied 
down to the middle of the 17th century, when a German 
Jesuit, Gaspar Schott, was bold enough to declare that 
although the birth-place of this uncommon species of 
goose was unknown (it is now believed to breed in 
Spitzbergen and Nova Zembla), undoubtedly it was pro- 
duced from incubated eggs like any other goose. Never- 
theless the fable was reaffirmed in the Philosophical 
Transactions of the Scottish Royal Society for 1677. 
Henry Lee 38 recalls two versions of the absurd but preva- 
lent theory. One is that certain trees, resembling willows, 
and growing always close to the sea, produced at the ends 


of their branches fruits in the shape of apples, each con- 
taining the embryo of a goose, which, when the fruit was 
ripe, fell into the water and flew away. The other is that 
the geese were bred from a fungus growing on rotten 
timber floating at sea, and were first developed in the 
form of worms in the substance of the wood. 

It is plain that this fable sprang from the similitude 
to the wings of tiny birds of the feathery arms that 
sessile barnacles reach out from their shells to clutch from 
the water their microscopic food, and also to the remote 
likeness the naked heads and necks of young birds bear 
to stalked or "whale" barnacles (Lepas). Both these 
cirripeds are found attached to floating wood, and some- 
times to tree-branches exposed to waves and to high tides. 
The deception so agreeable to hungry churchmen was 
abetted by the etymologies in the older dictionaries. Dr. 
Murray, editor of The New Oxford Dictionary, asserts, 
however, that the origin of the word "barnacle" is not 
known, but that certainly it was applied to the mature 
goose before its was given to the cirriped. 

Speaking of geese, what is the probable source of the 
warning "Don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs" 
beyond or behind the obvious moral of ^Esop's familiar 
fable? The only light on the subject that has come to 
me is the following passage in Bayley's 24 somewhat 
esoteric book: 

The Hindoos represent Brahma, the Breath of Life, as riding 
upon a goose, and the Egyptians symbolized Seb, the father of 
Osiris, as a goose. . . . According to the Hindoo theory of 
creation the Supreme Spirit laid a golden egg resplendent as the 
sun, and from the golden egg was born Brahma, the progenitor 
of the Universe. The Egyptians had a similar story, and de- 
scribed the sun as an egg laid by the primeval goose, in later 


times said to be a god. It is probable that our fairy tale of 
the goose that laid the golden egg is a relic of this very ancient 

These notions in India probably were the seed of a 
Buddhist legend that comes a little nearer to our quest. 
According to this legend the Buddha (to be) was born 
a Brahmin, and after growing up was married and his 
wife bore him three daughters. After his death he was 
born again as a golden mallard (which is a duck), and 
determined to give his golden feathers one by one for the 
support of his former family. This beneficence went on, 
the mallard-Bodhisat helping at intervals by a gift of a 
feather. Then one day the mother proposed to pluck the 
bird clean, and, despite the protests of the daughters, did 
so. But at that instant the golden feathers ceased to be 
golden. His wings grew again, but they were plain white. 
It may be added that the Pali word for golden goose 
is hansa, whence the Latin anser, goose, German gans, 
the root, gan appearing in our words gander and gannet ; 
so that it appears that the "mallard" was a goose, after 
all — and so was the woman! 

This may not explain iEsop, for that fabulist told or 
wrote his moral anecdotes a thousand years before Bud- 
dhism was heard of; but it is permissible to suppose that 
so simple a lesson in bad management might have been 
taught in India ages before y£sop (several of whose 
fables have been found in early Egyptian papyri), and 
was only repeated, in a new dressing, by good Buddhists, 
as often happens with stories having a universal appeal 
to our sense of practical philosophy or of humor. 

We have had occasion to speak of the eagle in many 
different aspects, as the elected king of the birds, as an 
emblem of empire, and so on, but there remain for use 


in this chapter some very curious attributes assigned to 
the great bird by ancient wonder-mongers that long ago 
would have been lost in the discarded rubbish of primi- 
tive ideas — mental toys of the childhood of the world — 
had they not been preserved for us in the undying pages 
of literature. Poetry, especially, is a sort of museum 
of antique inventions, preserving for us specimens — 
often without labels — of speculative stages in the early 
development of man's comprehension of nature. 

In the case of the eagle (as a genus, in the Old World 
not always clearly distinguished from vultures and the 
larger hawks) it is sometimes difficult to say whether 
some of its legendary aspects are causes or effects of 
others. Was its solar quality, for example, a cause or a 
consequence of its supposed royalty in the bird tribe? 
The predatory power, lofty flight, and haughty yet noble 
mien of the true eagle, may account for both facts, to- 
gether or separately. It would be diving too deeply into 
the murky depths of mythology to show full proof, but 
it may be accepted that everywhere, at least in the East, 
the fountain of superstitions, the eagle typified the sun 
in its divine aspect. This appears as a long-accepted con- 
ception at the very dawn of history among the sun-wor- 
shippers of the Euphrates Valley, and it persisted in art 
and theology until Christianity remodelled such "heathen" 
notions to suit the new trend of religious thought, and 
transformed the "bird of fire" into a symbol of the 
Omnipotent Spirit — an ascription which artists inter- 
preted very liberally. 

In Egypt a falcon replaced it in its religious signifi- 
cance, true eagles being rare along the Nile, and "eagle- 
hawks" were kept in the sun-gods' temples, sacred to 
Horus (represented with a hawk-head surmounted by a 


sun-disk), Ra, Osiris, Seku, and other solar divinities. 
"It was regarded," as Mr. Cook explains in Zeus, 37 "as 
the only bird that could look with unflinching gaze at 
the sun, being itself filled with sunlight, and eventually 
akin to fire." Later, people made it the sacred bird of 
Apollo, and Mithraic worshippers spoke of Helios as a 
hawk, but crude superstitions among the populace were 
mixed with this priestly reverence. 

It was universally believed of the eagle, that, as an old 
writer said, "she can see into the great glowing sun"; 
few if any were aware that she could veil her eyes by 
drawing across the orbs that third eyelid which naturalists 
term the nictitating membrane. Hence arose that fur- 
ther belief, lasting well into the Middle Ages, that the 
mother-bird proved her young by forcing them to gaze 
upon the sun, and discarding those who shrank from the 
fiery test — "Like Eaglets bred to Soar, Gazing on Starrs 
at heaven's mysterious Pow'r," wrote an anonymous poet 
in 1652. "Before that her little ones be feathered," in the 
words of an old compiler of marvels quoted by Hulme, 38 
"she will beat and strike them with her wings, and thereby 
force them to looke full against the sunbeams. Now if 
she sees any one of them to winke, or their eies to water 
at the raies of the sunne, she turns it with the head fore- 
most out of the nest as a bastard." 

How many who now read the 103d Psalm, or that fine 
figure of rhetoric in Milton's Areopagitica, could explain 
the full meaning of the comparison used? The passage 
referred to is that in which Milton exclaims: "Methinks 
I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing her- 
self like a strong man after sleep. . . . Methinks I see 
her renewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undaz- 
zled eyes at the sun." Milton evidently expected all his 


readers to appreciate the value of his simile — to know 
that eagles were credited with just this power of juvenes- 
cence. "When," in the words of an even older chronicler, 
"an eagle hathe darkness and dimness in een, and heavi- 
nesse in wings, against this disadvantage she is taught by 
kinde to seek a well of springing water, and then she flieth 
up into the aire as far as she may, till she be full hot by 
heat of the air and by travaille of flight, and so then by 
heat the pores being opened, and the feathers chafed, and 
she f alleth sideingly into the well, and there the feathers 
be chaunged and the dimness of her een is wiped away 
and purged, and she taketh again her might and strength." 
Isn't that a finely constructed tale? Spencer thought so 
when he wrote: 

As eagle fresh out of the ocean wave, 
Where he hath left his plumes, all hoary gray, 
And decks himself with feathers, youthful, gay. 

Margaret C. Walker 39 elaborates the legend in her 
excellent book, suggesting that it may have originated in 
contemplation of the great age to which eagles are sup- 
posed to live; but to my mind it grew out of the ancient 
symbolism that made the eagle represent the sun, which 
plunges into the western ocean every night, and rises, 
its youth renewed every morning. 

"It is related, ,, says Miss Walker, "that when this bird feels 
the season of youth is passing by, and when his young are still 
in the nest, he leaves the aging earth and soars toward the 
sun, the consumer of all that is harmful. Mounting upward to 
the third region of the air — the region of meteors — he circles 
and swings about under the great fiery ball in their midst, turn- 
ing every feather to its scorching rays, then, with wings drawn 
back, like a meteor himself, he drops into some cold spring or 
into the ocean wave there to have the heat driven inward by 
the soul-searching chill of its waters. Then flying to his eyrie 


he nestles among his warm fledglings, till, starting into perspi- 
ration, he throws off his age with his feathers. That his re- 
juvenescence may be complete, as his sustenance must be of 
youth, he makes prey of his young, feeding on the nestlings 
that have warmed him. He is clothed anew and youth is again 

Cruden's Concordance B1 to the Bible, first published in 
1737, contains under "Eagle" a fine lot of old Semitic 
misinformation as to the habits of eagles, which Cruden 
gives his clerical readers apparently in complete faith and 
as profitable explanations of the biblical passages in which 
that bird is mentioned. Allow me to quote some of these 
as an addition to our collection, for I find them retained 
without comment in the latest edition of this otherwise 
admirable work: 

It is said that when an eagle sees its young ones so well- 
grown, as to venture upon flying, it hovers over their nest, 
flutters with its wings, and excites them to imitate it, and take 
their flight, and when it sees them weary or fearful it takes 
them upon its back, and carries them so, that the fowlers can- 
not hurt the young without piercing through the body of the 
old one. ... It is of great courage, so as to set on harts and 
great beasts. And has no less subtility in taking them; for hav- 
ing filled its wings with sand and dust, it sitteth on their horns, 
and by its wings shaketh it in their eyes, whereby they become 
an easy prey. ... It goeth forth to prey about noon, when 
men are gone home from the fields. 

It hath a little eye, but a very quick sight, and discerns its 
prey afar off, and beholds the sun with open eyes, Such of her 
young as through weakness of sight cannot behold the sun, it 
rejects as unnatural. It liveth long, nor dieth of age or sick- 
ness, say some, but of hunger, for by age its bill grows so 
hooked that it cannot feed. ... It is said that it preserves its 
nest from poison, by having therein a precious stone, named 
Aetites (without which it is thought the eagle cannot lay her 
eggs . . .) and keepeth it clean by the frequent use of the herb 
maidenhair. Unless it be very hungry it devoureth not whole 
prey, but leaveth part of it for other birds, which follow. Its 


feathers, or quills, are said to consume other quills that lie near 
them. Between the eagle and dragon there is constant enmity, 
the eagle seeking to kill it, and the dragon breaks all the 
eagle's eggs it can find. 

If the Jewish eagles are as smart as that, my sympathies 
are with the dragon ! 

The relations between Zeus, or Jupiter, and the eagle, 
mostly reprehensible, belong to classic mythology; and 
they have left little trace in folklore, which, be it re- 
membered, takes account of living or supposed realities, 
not of mythical creatures. The most notable bit, per- 
haps, is the widely accepted notion that this bird is never 
killed by lightning; is "secure from thunder and un- 
harmed by Jove," as Dryden phrases it. Certain common 
poetic allusions explain themselves, for instance, that in 
The Myrmidons of ^Eschylus: 

So, in the Libyan fable it is told 
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart, 
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft, 
'With our own feathers, not by others' hands 
'Are we now smitten/ 

These little narratives, which are certainly interesting 
if true — as they are not — are good examples of the 
failure to exercise what may be called the common-sense 
of science. 

Extraordinary indeed are the foolish things that used 
to be told of birds by men apparently wise and observant 
in other, even kindred, matters. Isaak Walton, 40 for 
example, so well informed as to fish, seemed to swallow 
falsities about other animals as readily as did the 
gudgeon Isaak's bait. He writes in one place, after 
quoting some very mistaken remarks about grasshoppers, 


that "this may be believed if we consider that when the 
raven hath hatched her eggs she takes no further care, 
but leaves her young ones to the care of the God of 
Nature, who is said in the Psalms 'to feed the young 
that call upon him.' And they be kept alive, and fed 
by a dew, or worms that breed in their nests, or some 
other ways that we mortals know not." 

The origin of this is plain. The ancient Jews told one 
another that ravens left their fledgings to survive by 
chance, not feeding them as other birds did. This is 
manifested in several places in the Bible, as in the 147th 
Psalm : "He giveth to the beast his food and to the young 
ravens which cry"; but this absurd notion is far older, 
no doubt, than the Psalms. Aristotle 41 mentions that 
in Scythia — a terra incognita where, in the minds of the 
Greeks, anything might happen— "there is a kind of bird 
as big as a bustard, which . . . does not sit upon its 
eggs, but hides them in the skin of a hare or fox," and 
then watches them from a neighboring perch. Readers 
may guess at the reality, if any, behind this. Aristotle 
seems to have accepted it as a fact, for he goes on to de- 
scribe how certain birds of prey are equally devoid of 
parental sense of duty; but we cannot be sure what species 
are referred to, despite the names used in Cresswell's 
translation of the History of Animals, as follows: 

The bird called asprey . . . feeds both its young and those 
of the eagle ... for the eagle turns out its young . . . before 
the proper time, when they still require feeding and are unable 
to fly. The eagle appears to eject its young from the nest 
from envy . . . and strikes them. When they are turned out 
they begin to scream, and the phene comes and takes them up. 

Why so strange notions of maternal care in birds 
should ever have gained credence in the face of daily ob- 


servation of the solicitude of every creature for its young, 
is one of the puzzles of history, but that they were wide- 
spread is certain, and also that they persisted in folklore 
down to the time when, at the dawn of the Renaissance, 
observation and research began to replace blind confidence 
in ancient lore. Thus J. E. Harting, 42 in his well-known 
treatise on the natural history in Shakespeare, quotes 
from a Latin folio of 1582 in support of his statement 
that "it was certainly a current belief in olden times that 
when the raven saw its young newly hatched, and covered 
with down, it conceived such an aversion that it forsook 
them, and did not return to its nest until a darker plumage 
showed itself." 

Ravens have quite enough sins to answer for and 
calumnies to live down without adding to the list this 
murderous absurdity, contrary to the very first law of 
bird-nature. Nevertheless the poets, as usual, take ad- 
vantage of the thought (for its moral picturesqueness, I 
suppose), as witness Burns's lines in The Cotters Satur- 
day Night — 

That he who stills the raven's clamorous nest 

Would in the way his wisdom sees the best, 
For them and for their little ones provide. 

It is plain that the plowman-poet was too canny to be- 
lieve it, but perhaps it is well to say that there is no foun- 
dation in fact for this extraordinary charge. Ravens 
are faithful and careful parents: in fact Shakespeare 
makes a character in Titus Andronicus mention that 
"some say that ravens foster forlorn children," a view 
quite the opposite of the other. 

Another calumny is thoughtlessly repeated by Brewer 34 


in his widely used reference-book Phrase and Fable 
(which unfortunately is far from trustworthy in the de- 
partment of natural history) when he records: "Ravens 
by their acute sense of smell, discern the savor of dying 
bodies, and under the hope of preying on them, light on 
chimney-tops or flutter about sick-rooms." 

The correction to be made here is not to the gruesome 
superstition but to the asserted keenness of the bird's 
sense of smell. The gathering of vultures to a dead 
animal is not by its odor, but by the sight of the carcass 
by one, and the noting of signs of that fact by others, 
who hasten to investigate the matter. Oliver Goldsmith 32 
fell into the same error when he wrote of the protective 
value, as he esteemed it, of this sense in birds in general, 
"against their insidious enemies" ; and cited the practice 
of decoymen, formerly so numerous as wildfowl trappers 
in the east of England, "who burn turf to hide their 
scent from the ducks." The precaution was wasted, for 
none of the senses in birds is so little developed or of 
so small use as the olfactory. Goldsmith's Animated 
Nature was, a century ago, the fountain of almost all 
popular knowledge of natural history among English- 
reading people, and was often reprinted. As a whole it 
was a good and useful book, but its accomplished author 
was not a trained naturalist, and absorbed some state- 
ments that were far from authentic — perhaps in some 
cases he was so pleased with the narrative that he was not 
sufficiently critical of its substance, as in the story of 
the storks in Smyrna: 

The inhabitants amuse themselves by taking away some of 
the storks' eggs from the nests on their roofs, and replacing 
them with fowls' eggs. "When the young are hatched the saga- 
cious male bird discovers the difference of these from their own 


brood and sets up a hideous screaming, which excites the atten- 
tion of the neighboring storks, which fly to his nest. Seeing the 
cause of their neighbor's uneasiness, they simultaneously com- 
mence pecking the hen, and soon deprive her of life, supposing 
these spurious young ones to be the produce of her conjugal 
infidelity. The male bird in the meantime appears melancholy, 
though he seems to conceive she justly merited her fate." 

In Goldsmith's day such contributions to foreign 
zoology were common. Even the so-called scientific men of 
early Renaissance times indulged in the story-teller's joy. 
Albertus Magnus asserted that the sea-eagle and the 
osprey swam with one foot, which was webbed, and cap- 
tured prey with the other that was armed with talons. 
Aldrovandus backed him up, and everybody accepted the 
statement until Linnaeus laughed them out of it by the 
simple process of examining the birds. These, you may 
protest, are not mistakes but pure fancies ; yet it is only 
a short step from them to the romance, hardly yet under 
popular doubt, that the albatross broods its eggs in a raft- 
like, floating nest and sleeps on the wing, as you may 
read in Lalla Rookh: 

While on a peak that braved the sky 
A ruined temple tower'd so high 
That oft the sleeping albatross 
Struck the wild ruins with her wing, 
And from her cloud-rocked slumbering 
Started, to find man's dwelling there 
In her own fields of silent air. 

Even more poetic is the tale of the death-chant of the 
swan, still more than half-believed by most folks, for 
we constantly use it as a figure of speech, describing in a 
word, for example, the final protest of a discarded office- 
seeker as his "swan-song." It is useless to hunt for the 


origin of this notion — it was current at any rate in Aris- 
totle's time, for he writes: "Swans have the power of 
song, especially when near the end of their life, and some 
persons, sailing near the coast of Libya, have met many 
of them in the sea singing a mournful song and have 
afterwards seen some of them die." Pliny, vElian (who 
called Greece "mother of lies"), Pausanias and othermore 
recent philosophers, denied that there was any truth in 
this statement ; but the sentimental public, charmed by the 
pathos of the picture presented to their imaginations, and 
refusing to believe that in reality this bird's only utterance 
is a whoop, or a trumpet-like note, have kept it alive 
aided by the poets who have found it a useful fancy — - 
for example Byron, who moans 

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep, 

Where nothing save the waves and I 

May hear our mutual murmurs sweep; 

There, swan-like, let me sing and die. 

The poets are not to be quarrelled with too severely on 
this account. It must be conceded that our literature 
would have been considerably poorer had poets declined 
to accept all that travellers and country folk told them. 
Chaucer uses the "swan-song," and Shakespeare often 
alludes to it, as in Othello: 

I will play the swan and die in music. 
A swan-like end, fading in music. 

Even Tennyson has a poem on it, picturing a scene of the 
most charming nature, the pensive beauty of which is 
vastly enhanced by the bold use of the fable. 

It has required both the hard scientific scrutiny of the 
past century and a wide scattering of geographical infor- 


mation, to offset in the minds of most of us the tendency 
to imagine that "over the hills and far away" things 
somehow are picturesquely different from those in our 
own humdrum neighborhood, and that perhaps yonder 
the laws of nature, so inexorable here, may admit now 
and then of exceptions. Amber came from — well, few 
persons knew precisely whence; and wasn't it possible 
that it might be a concretion of birds' tears, as some 

Around thee shall glisten the loveliest amber 
That ever the sorrowing sea-bird hath wept — 

sang an enamored poet. 

Facilis descensus Averni is a Latin phrase in constant 
use, with the implication that it is difficult to get back — 
sed revocare gradus, that's the rub ! But how many know 
that this dark little cliff-ringed lake near Cumae, in Italy, 
was anciently so named in the belief that because of its 
noxious vapors no bird could fly across it without being 
suffocated. Hence a myth placed there an entrance to 
the nether world, and, with keen business instincts, the 
Cumaean sybil intensified her reputation as a seer by tak- 
ing as her residence a grotto near this baleful bit of water. 

Who can forget the monumental mistake of that really 
great and philosophic naturalist, Buffon, in denying that 
the voices of American birds were, or could be, melodious. 
He said of our exquisite songster, the wood-thrush, that 
it represented the song-thrush of Europe which had at 
sometime rambled around by the Northern Ocean and 
made its way into America ; and that it had there, owing 
to a change of food and climate, so degenerated that its 
cry was now harsh and unpleasant, "as are the cries of all 
birds that live in wild countries inhabited by savages." 


The danger of error in drawing inferences as to pur- 
pose in nature is great in any case; but it is doubly so 
when the philosopher is mistaken as to his supposed 

By going back a few decades one might find examples 
of more or less amusing errors in natural history to the 
point of weariness, but with one or two illustrations from 
The Young Ladies' Book (Boston, 1836), I will bring 
this chapter to its end. This little volume, doubtless Eng- 
lish in origin, was intended for the entertaining instruc- 
tion of school-girls, and in many respects was excellent, 
but when it ventured on American ornithology it put 
some amusing misinformation into its readers' minds. It 
teaches them that our butcherbirds "bait thorns with 
grasshoppers to decoy the lesser insectivorous birds into 
situations where they may easily be seized" — a beautiful 
sample of teleological assumption of motive based on the 
fact that the shrike sometimes impales dead grasshoppers, 
mice and so forth on thorns or fence-splinters, having 
learned apparently that that is a good way to hold its 
prey (its feet are weak, and unprovided with talons) 
while it tears away mouthfuls of flesh. Often the victim 
is left there, only partly eaten, or perhaps untorn; and 
rarely, if ever, does the shrike return to it, and certainly 
it attracts no "lesser insectivorous" birds nor any other 

The author also instructs his young ladies that "the 
great American bittern has the property of emitting a 
light from its breast," and so forth. His authority for 
this long-persistent and picturesque untruth was a review 
of Wilson's American Ornithology in Loudon's Magazine 
of Natural History (London, Vol. vi., 835.) Speaking 
of this familiar marsh-bird, which, let me repeat, has 


no such aid in making a living, or need of it, as it is not 
nocturnal in its habits, the anonymous reviewer writes: 

It is called by Wilson the great American bittern, but, what 
is very extraordinary, he omits to mention that it has the power 
of emitting a light from its breast, equal to the light of a 
common torch, which illuminates the water so as to enable it 
to discover its prey. ... I took some trouble to ascertain the 
truth of this, which has been confirmed to me by several gentle- 
men of undoubted veracity, and especially by Mr. Franklin 
Peale, the proprietor of the Philadelphia Museum. 

A similar belief existed in the past in regard to the 
osprey, which we in the United States call the fish-hawk. 
Loskiel (Mission to the Indians, 1794) records it thus: 
"They say that when it [the fish-hawk] hovers over the 
water, it possesses a power of alluring the fish toward 
the surface, by means of an oily substance contained in 
its body. So much is certain, that, if a bait is touched 
with this oil, the fish bite so greedily, that it appears as 
if it were impossible for them to resist." How much 
of this is native American, and how much is imported 
it is hard to determine now. 


I WAS sitting on a hillside in the Catskill Mountains 
a few years ago in June, when a hawk came sailing 
over the field below me. Instantly a kingbird sprang 
from the edge of the woods and rushed, in the cavalier 
manner of that flycatcher, to drive the hawk away, pre- 
sumably from its nesting neighborhood. The hawk tried 
to avoid the pecking and wing-beating of its furious 
little foe, but the tormenter kept at it; and before long I 
saw the kingbird deliberately leap upward and alight on 
the hawk's broad back, where it rode comfortably until 
both birds were out of sight. I have seen a humming- 
bird indulge in the same piece of impudence. 

The Arawak Indians of Venezuela relate that their 
ancestors obtained their first tobacco-plants from Trini- 
dad by sending a hummingbird, mounted on a crane, 
to snatch and bring back the jealously guarded seeds. 
The association of these birds in this way seems sig- 

It was doubtless because adventures similar to that 
of the kingbird were noticed long ago, that there grew 
up the very ancient fable that on one occasion a general 
assembly of birds resolved to chose for their king that 
bird which could mount highest into the air. This the 
eagle apparently did, and all were ready to accept his rule 
when a loud burst of song was heard, and perched upon 
the eagle's back was seen an exultant wren that, a stowa- 



way under its wing, had been carried aloft by the kingly 
candidate. This trickiness angered the eagle so much, 
says one tradition, that he struck the wren with his wing, 
which, since then, has been able to fly no higher than a 
hawthorn-bush. In a German version a stork, not an 
eagle, carries the wren aloft concealed under its wing. 

W. H. Hudson, the authority on Argentine zoology, 
says that the boat-tailed grakle, or "chopi," pursues all 
sorts of predatory birds, even the great caracara eagle, 
"pouncing down and fastening itself on the victim's 
back, where it holds its place till the obnoxious bird has 
left its territory." Sir Samuel Baker encountered in 
Abyssinia bands of cranes walking about in search of 
grasshoppers, every crane carrying on its back one or 
more small flycatchers that from time to time would 
fly down, seize an insect in the grass, and then return to 
a crane's shoulders. Precisely the same thing has been 
recorded of bustards and starlings in South Africa. 

Bird-students are well aware that certain ducks that 
nest in trees, and such marine birds as guillemots breed- 
ing on sea-fronting cliffs, sometimes carry down their 
young from these lofty birth-places by balancing them on 
their backs ; also that it is a common thing to see water- 
fowls, especially grebes and swans, swimming about with 
a lot of little ones on deck, that is, on the broad maternal 

These facts prepare us somewhat for examining the 
widely credited assertion that various large birds of 
powerful flight transport small birds on their semiannual 
migrations — a speculation accepted since classic times, or 
before them. In Deuteronomy, xxxii, II, we read: 
"As the eagle fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad 
her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings," etc. 


Modern ornithologists scout the notion. Thus Alfred 
Newton 55 refers to it in a scornful way, but admits that 
it is the conviction not only of Egyptian peasants but of 
Siberian Tartars, who assured the ornithologist Gmelin, 
in 1740, that in autumn storks and cranes carried south- 
ward on their backs all the Siberian corncrakes. In a 
Gaelic folk-tale of Cathal O'Couchan a falcon, knowing 
that the wren of the story has a long way to go, says: 
"Spring up between my wings, and no other bird will 
touch thee till thou reach home." 

In fact, this popular notion is almost world-wide, 
and it is useful to assemble such evidence as may be 
had as to the basis of it, for one cannot well dismiss with a 
gesture of disdain a theory that appears to have arisen in- 
dependently, and from observation, among peoples so 
widely separated as those of Siberia and Egypt, of Crete 
and the Hudson Bay country ; and which continues to be 
held by competent observers. A German man of letters, 
Adolph Ebeling, who published a book of his experiences 
in Egypt in 1878, was surprised to find the wagtail there 
at that season. This is a small, ground-keeping bird that 
flits about rather than flies; and he expressed to an old 
Arab his astonishment that such birds should be able to 
get across the Mediterranean. "The Bedouin," Ebeling 
relates, "turned to me with a mixture of French and 
Arabic as follows: 'Do you not know, noble sir, that these 
small birds are borne over the sea by the larger ones ?' " 
I laughed, but the old man continued quite naturally: 
"Every child among us knows that. Those little birds 
are much too weak to make the long sea-journey with 
their own strength. This they know very well, and there- 
fore wait for the storks and cranes and other large birds, 
and settle themselves upon their backs. In this w r ay they 


allow themselves to be borne over the sea. The large 
birds submit to it willingly, for they like their little guests 
who by their merry twitterings help to kill the time on 
the long voyage.'' 

Ebeling met that evening, he says, in Cairo, the African 
explorer Theodor von Heuglin, who, as all know, was a 
specialist in African ornithology, related to him the con- 
versation with the Bedouin, and asked his opinion on it. 
"Let others laugh," said von Heuglin. "I do not laugh, 
for the thing is known to me. I should have recently 
made mention of it in my work if I had had any strong 
personal proof to justify it. We must be much more 
careful in such matters than a mere story-teller or 

A Swedish traveller, Hedenborg, is quoted by August 
Petermann, the geographer, as stating that in autumn on 
the Island of Rhodes, in the y£gean Sea, when the storks 
came in flocks across the water he often heard birds sing- 
ing that he was unable to discover. "Once he followed a 
flock of storks, and as they alighted he saw small birds 
fly up from their backs." 

There was published in London in 1875 a book entitled 
Bible Lands and Bible Customs, the author of which was 
the Rev. Henry J. Van Lennep, D.D. Dr. Lennep in- 
forms his readers that many small birds are unable to 
fly across the Mediterranean, "and to meet such cases the 
crane has been provided. ... In the autumn numerous 
flocks may be seen coming from the north . . . flying 
low and circling over the plains. Little birds of various 
species may then be seen flying up to them, while the 
twittering songs of those comfortably settled on their 
backs may then be distinctly heard." (Quoted in Nature, 
March 24, 1881 ). We may smile at the good man's faith 


that God "provided" big birds as carriers for little ones — 
especially as we know that the weakest warblers are able 
to cross from Europe to Africa; but other equally modern 
and more matter-of-fact testimony comes from the same 
quarter of the world. In The Evening Post, of New 
York City, dated November 20, 1880, a long letter ap- 
peared on this topic, written by an anonymous corre- 
spondent who gave his own similar experience in Crete 
in the autumn of 1878, part of which reads: 

"On several occasions the village priest — a friendly Greek 
with whom I spent the greater part of my time — directed my 
attention to the twittering and singing of small birds which he 
distinctly heard when a flock of sand-cranes passed by on 
their southward journey. I told my friend that I could not see 
any small birds, and suggested that the noise came from the 
wings of the large ones. This he denied, saying 'No, no ! I 
know it is the chirping of small birds. They are on the backs 
of the cranes. I have seen them frequently fly up and alight 
again, and they are always with them when they stop to rest and 
feed.' I was still sceptical, for with the aid of a field-glass I 
failed to discover the 'small birds' spoken of. I inquired of 
several others and found the existence of these little feathered 
companions to be a matter of general belief. 'They come over 
from Europe with them.' One day, while fishing about fifteen 
miles from shore, a flock of cranes passed quite near the yacht. 
The fishermen, hearing the 'small birds/ drew my attention to 
their chirping. Presently one cried out, 'There's one !' but I 
failed to catch sight of it, whereupon one of the men discharged 
his flintlock. Three small birds rose up from the flock and soon 
disappeared among the cranes." 

This letter, despite its column-length and its anonym- 
ity, was copied in full by that highly scientific journal 
Nature, of London, and this immediately brought out a 
note from John Rae, one of the wisest explorers of north- 
western Canada, who related (Nature, March 3, 1881) 
that it was the general belief among the Maskegan (Cree) 


Indians dwelling along the southwestern shore of Hudson 
Bay that "a small bird, one of the Fringillidae, performs 
its northward migration in spring on the back of the 
Canada goose. These geese reach Hudson Bay about the 
last of April, and the Indians state that when they are 
fired at little birds are seen flying away from them." Mr. 
Rae adds: "An intelligent, truthful and educated Indian, 
named George Rivers . . . assured me that he had wit- 
nessed this, and I believe I once saw it occur." 

Almost simultaneously Forest and Stream (New York, 
March 10, 1881) printed a communication from J. C. 
Merrill of Fort Custer, Montana, alleging "a general be- 
lief among the Crow Indians of Montana that the sand- 
hill crane performs the same office for a bird they call 
napite-shu-ntl, or crane's back." Mr. Merrill continued: 

"This bird I have not seen, but from the description it is 
probably a small grebe. It is 'big medicine/ and when obtained 
is rudely stuffed and carefully preserved. . . . About ten or 
fifteen per cent of cranes are accompanied by the 'crane-back/ 
which, as the crane rises from the ground, flutters up and 
settles on the back between the wings, remaining there until the 
crane alights. Such is the Indian account, and many of their 
hunters and chiefs have assured me that they have frequently 
seen the birds carried off in this way. At these times the bird 
is said to keep up a constant chattering whistle, which is the 
origin of the custom of the Crow warriors going out to battle, 
each with a small bone whistle in his mouth ; this is continually 
blown, imitating the notes of the 'crane's-back,' and, as they 
believe, preserves their ponies and themselves from wounds, so 
that in case of defeat they may be safely carried away as is the 

"The Cree Indians are said to observe the same habit in the 
white crane." 

Now there is no good reason to deny the honesty or 
sneer at the value of these widely distributed observations 


so long as they arc regarded as descriptive of exceptions 
and not of a rule of migration. Neither the observers 
nor die reporters had any motive for deception, and are 
not likely to deceive themselves in every case — moreover, 
new witnesses continually arise. For example: Mr. E. 
Hagland, of Therien, Alberta, wrote to me as follows in 
a casual way, without any prompting, in April, 1919: 

"One fall a flock of cranes passed over me flying very low, 
and apart from their squawking I could distinctly hear the 
twittering of small birds, sparrows of some kind. The chirping 
grew louder as the cranes drew towards me, and grew fainter 
as they drew away; and as the cranes were the only birds in 
sight I concluded that little birds were taking a free ride to the 

The manner of flight of sandhill cranes as described 
by Dr. Elliott Coues 50 suggests why they might well be 
utilized as common carriers by small birds going their 
way. "Such ponderous bodies, moving with slowly beat- 
ing wings, give a great idea of momentum from mere 
weight . . . for they plod along heavily, seeming to need 
every inch of their ample wings to sustain themselves." 
This would make it easy and tempting for a tired little 
migrant to rest its feet on the crane's broad back — and 
once settled there, why not stay ? 

The flaw in this whole matter is the unwarranted in- 
ference made by the Bedouins who talked with Herr 
Ebling, and by wiser persons, namely, that all the wag- 
tails and other little birds annually perform their over- 
seas journeys by aid of stronger-winged friends. That is 
reasoning from some to all, which is bad logic. It is as 
if a stranger in town noticed a few schoolboys hopping 
on the back of a wagon, and immediately noted down that 
in Pequaket boys in general rode to school on the tail- 


boards of farm-wagons. Little birds, like small boys, 
have sense enough in their migrations to utilize a conven- 
ience when it is going their way — in other words a very 
few lucky ones each year manage to "steal a ride." 

Thus far we have been dealing with a matter pretty 
close to actual ornithology; but it is only within recent 
years that study has made clear to us "the way of an eagle 
in the air," which, as a symbol of the semiannual move- 
ment of bird-hosts, was such a mystery to our fore- 
fathers. They imagined many quaint explanations, often 
no more sensible than the theory of the Ojibway Indians, 
who say that once bird-folk played ball with the North 
Wind. The latter won the game, and those kinds of 
birds who were on his side now stay in the North all 
winter, while those of the defeated side are obliged to 
flee southward every autumn, as their ancestors did at 
the end of the great ball-game. 

Sir Walter Scott recalls in one of his novels the fond 
conceit of the little nuns in the abbey of Whitby, on the 
Northumberland coast, that the wee immigrants arriving 
there after their flight across the North Sea fluttered to 
earth not in weariness of wings but to do homage to 
Hilda, their saintly abbess. That was fifteen long cen- 
turies ago ; but the story is true, for you may still see the 
ruins, at least, of Hilda's abbey, and still, spring by 
spring, do tired birds pause beside it as if to pay their de- 

Much less pleasant is the dread inspired in the hearts 
of those who listen to the Seven Whistlers. Formerly no 
Leicestershire miner would go down into a pit, after hear- 
ing them, until a little time had elapsed, taking the sounds 
as a warning that an accident was impending ; and doubt- 
less coincident mishaps occurred often enough to confirm 


faith in the presentiment. Level-headed men knew well 
enough what the Seven Whistlers were — "it's them long- 
billed curlews, but I never likes to hear 'em," said one. 
The northern name of these birds is "whimbrel," a form 
of the English whimperer. As these curlews when mi- 
grating often travel low on dark nights, and are unseen, 
it is not strange that their unearthly cries should chill the 
imagination of the superstitious, and that the Scotch 
should call them "corpse-hounds." "Gabble retchet" is 
another Scotch term ; and probably the Irish banshee had 
a similar origin. Still another name is "Gabriel hounds," 
originating, it is thought in Scandinavia, and explained 
by the fact that there the calling to one another of bean- 
geese in their nocturnal journeys, in spring, have a 
singular resemblance to the yelping of beagles; and the 
story is that Gabriel is obliged to follow his spectral pack, 
said to be human-headed, high in the dark air, as a 
punishment for having once hunted on Sunday. 

Wordsworth in one of his sonnets connects this belief 
with the German legend of the Wild Huntsman, "doomed 
the flying hart to chase forever on aerial grounds." A 
Lancashire explanation, quoted by Moncure D. Conway 
is that these migrants, there deemed to be plovers, were 
"Wandering Jews," so called because they contained the 
souls of Jews who assisted at the Crucifixion, and in con- 
sequence were condemned to float in the air forever. A 
curious coincidence, given by Skeat, 7 is that the Malays 
have an elaborate story of a spectral huntsman, and hear 
him in the nocturnal notes of the birikbirik, a nightjar. 

It is hardly more than a century ago that intelligent 
men abandoned the belief that certain birds hibernated in 
hollow trees, caverns, or even buried themselves every 
autumn in the mud at the bottom of ponds, and then re- 


covered in the spring. This theory is of great antiquity, 
and was applied especially to the swallows, swifts, night- 
ingales and corncrakes of the Mediterranean region; but 
even Aristotle doubted whether it was true of all birds. 
He discusses at some length in his Natural History a 
the winter retreat of fishes and other creatures that hi- 
bernate, and continues : 

"Many kinds of birds also conceal themselves, and they do 
not all, as some suppose, migrate to warmer climes . . . and 
many swallows have been seen in hollow places almost stripped 
of feathers; and kites, when they first showed themselves, have 
come from similar situations. . . . Some of the doves conceal 
themselves; others do not, but migrate along with the swallows. 
The thrush and the starling also conceal themselves." 

I have an unverified memorandum from the pen of 
Antonio Galvano, who resided in Mexico, long ago, that 
in his time hummingbirds 'live of the dew, and the juyce 
of flowers and roses. They die or sleeepe every yeere in 
the moneth of October, sitting upon a little bough in a 
warme and close place: they revive or wake againe in 
the moneth of April after that the flowers be sprung, and 
therefore they call them the revived birds." 

Even Gilbert White, 45 was inclined to think hibernation 
might be true, at least of British swallows ; and Cowper 
sings — 

The swallows in their torpid state 
Compose their useless wings. 

Alexander Wilson 46 thought it necessary to combat 
vigorously the same fiction then persistent among Penn- 
sylvania farmers, and did so at length in his American 
Ornithology published in 1808. 

But the wildest hypothesis was the one prevalent in the 


Middle Ages and alluded to by Dryden in his poem The 
Hind and The Panther, speaking of young swallows in 
autumn : 

They try their fluttering wings and trust themselves in air, 

But whether upward to the moon they go, 

Or dream the winter out in caves below, 

Or hawk for flies elsewhere, concerns us not to know. 

Southwards, you may be sure, they bent their flight, 

And harbored in a hollow rock by night. 

Or as Gay's shepherd surmises: 8 

He sung where woodcocks in the summer feed, 
And in what climates they renew their breed; 
Some think to northern coasts their flight tend, 
Or to the moon in midnight hours ascend: 
When swallows in the winter season keep, 
And how the drowsy bat and dormouse sleep. 

A quaint theological justification of this theory that 
birds fly to the moon as a winter-resort is to be found in 
Volume VI of The Harleian Miscellany. It is entitled 
"An Inquiry into the Physical and Literal Sense of the 
Scriptures/' and is an exegesis of Jeremiah viii, 7: "The 
stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time, and the 
turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time 
of their coming. ,, The reverend commentator, whose 
name is lost, begins at once to explain migration among 
birds. He first assures his readers that many birds, in- 
cluding storks, often fly on migration at a height that 
renders them indiscernible. Now, he argues, if the flight 
of storks had been in a horizontal direction flocks of 
birds would have been seen frequently by travellers — 
ignoring the fact that they are and always have been ob- 
served. But, he goes on, as the flight is not horizontal it 



must be perpendicular to the surface of the earth, and, 
therefore, it becomes clear that the moon would be the 
first resting-place the birds would be likely to strike, 
whereupon he draws this conclusion: "Therefore the 
stork, and the same may be said of other season-observing 
birds, till some place more fit can be assigned to them, does 
go unto, and remain in some one of the celestial bodies ; 
and that must be the moon, which is most likely because 
nearest, and bearing most relation to this our earth, as 
appears in the Copernican scheme; yet is the distance 
great enough to denominate the passage thither an itine- 
ration or journey." 

The author next clinches the matter by taking the 
time that the stork is absent from its nesting-place, and 
showing how it is utilized. Two months are occupied in 
the upward flight, three for rest and refreshment, and 
two more for the return passage. Thus this ingenious 
writer lays what he considers a solid scientific foundation 
beneath an ancient and vague theory. 

The sudden vanishing of some migratory birds while 
others resembling them remained in view gave to ancient 
ignorance — not yet altogether dissipated, even in these 
United States — the belief that a bird might change into 
the form of another. The difference noticed in plumage 
in some species in summer and winter was accounted for 
in the same way, as many old Greek myths illustrate. 
Thus Sophocles, trying in one of his dramas to explain 
an inconsistency between two versions of the myth of 
Tereus, declares that the hoopoe of the older story is the 
hawk of the newer one — the birds were altered, not the 
narrative. He was easily believed, for to the Greeks of 
his day it appeared plain that birds might become trans- 
formed into others birds. Aristotle took great pains to 


show the absurdity of this notion, yet it has held 
on. Swann tells of an Englishman who declared that it 
was well-known that sparrow-hawks changed into 
cuckoos in spring; and another old belief is that the 
European land-rail becomes in winter the water-rail, re- 
suming its own form in spring. A French name for the 
land-rail, by the way, is "king of the quails, ,, because the 
quails chose it as leader in their migrations. 

One of the most picturesque incidents in the story of 
the wilderness-roving of the Children of Israel, who were 
"murmuring" for the fleshpots of Egypt, is the sudden 
coming of quails that "filled the camp." The interpre- 
tation is plain that a migratory host of these birds had 
settled for the night where the Hebrews, or some of them, 
were; and the notable point is their abundance, and that 
they had disappeared when morning came, which is 
characteristic. These quails visit Europe in summer in 
prodigious numbers from south of the Mediterranean, 
and are netted for market by tens of thousands. It is 
said that in old times the bishops of Capri — Italy receives 
the greatest flight — derived a large part of their wealth 
from a tax on the catching of quails. Pliny alleges, as 
an example of the immense migrations of these quails in 
his time, that often, always at night, they settled on the 
sails of ships and so sank them. This really seems 
possible when one thinks of the small size of the "ships" 
of that period, and recalls that flights of our own mi- 
grating pigeons (now extinct) used to smash down stout 
branches of trees by the weight of the crowds of birds 
that settled on them. 

Cranes are birds of striking characteristics, as we have 
seen, and seem to have impressed very forcibly the ancient 
Greeks as well as recent Orientals, the latter finding in 


them an extraordinary symbolism. The Greeks believed 
that during their winter absence the cranes were in con- 
stant battle with the Pygmies — 'That small infantry 
warred on by cranes," as Milton characterized those 
diminutive, but pugnacious folks who lived no one knew 
exactly where, but certainly at the ends of the earth. 
'The cranes travel," Aristotle records, "from Scythia to 
the marshes in the higher parts of Egypt from which the 
Nile originates. This is the place where the Pygmies 
dwell ; and this is no fable, for there is really, it is said, 
a race of dwarfs, both men and horses, which lead the 
life of troglodytes." 

When the shrill clouds of Cranes do give alarmes, 
The valiant Pigmy stands unto his armes: 
Straight, too weak for the Thracian bird, he's swept, 
And through the eye in crooked tallons rapt. 48 

But this is only one item in the crane's list of wonders. 
When this bird migrates it always flies against the wind, 
according to ancient bird-minders, and carries a 
swallowed stone as ballast so that it may not be swept out 
of its course by a change of wind; and this stone when 
it is vomited up is useful as a touchstone for gold. Aris- 
totle had heard of this ballasting precaution, and ex- 
pressly denies it, but he says nothing about other stones 
associated with the history of the bird, perhaps because 
they had not been discovered in his day. The sagacious 
cranes were also said to post sentinels, while halting at 
night, and to insure their necessary vigilance these senti- 
nels were required to stand on one foot, and to hold in 
the other, uplifted one a large stone. Should one of 
these sentinel-birds drowse the stone would drop and by 
its noise awaken the sleepy sentry. This explains the 
fact that in British heraldry the crane is always repre- 


sented with a bit of rock in its fist, the pose signifying 

Lyly, 49 in that queer old book Euphucs, confesses: 
"What I have done was only to keep myselfe from sleepe, 
as the Crane doth the Stone in her foote; and I would 
also, with the same Crane, that I had been silent, holding 
a Stone in my mouth." His 16th-century readers under- 
stood this second simile, for they remembered that cranes 
were said to be thus gagged when migrating, so as not 
to utter any cries that would bring eagles or other birds of 
prey to attack them. 

This, perhaps, will be the most appropriate place to 
mention some other quaint but widely credited stories of 
birds possessed of stones, although they are not usually 
connected with migratory habits. 

The people of Rome in the old days were told of a 
crystalline stone called alec tonus, as large as a bean, to 
be found in the gizzard of the barnyard cock. It was 
held to have wonderful properties, endowing its possessor 
with strength, courage, and success with women and 
money, and to this apparently complete list of virtues is 
added by one historian the quality of invisibility. This 
last virtue also pertained to the stone placed by the raven 
in the throat of its fledging, but the formalities described 
as necessary for anyone who sought to obtain it were 
quite impossible to fulfil. "It may, indeed," as Hulme 38 
remarks, "have had the same effect on the original owner* 
as there could scarcely be an authentic instance of such 
peculiar property being found." On the other hand we 
are told that a stone from the hoopoe, when laid upon the 
breast of a sleeping man, forced him to reveal any 
rogueries he might have committed. 

It is stated in Cassell's Natural History (Vol. IV), 


that in India exists a popular superstition that if you will 
split the head of an adjutant stork before death you may 
extract from the skull "the celebrated stone called sahir 
mora, or 'poison-killer,' of great virtue and repute as an 
antidote to all kinds of poison." One would suppose that 
all the adjutants in India would long ago have been ex- 
terminated, but in fact this is one of the most numerous 
of birds there — the scavenger of every village. 

The common swallow was once believed to have two 
of these miraculous stones stowed away somewhere in its 
interior. One was red, and cured an invalid instantly: the 
other, a black one, brought good fortune. Also, it was 
reported, swallows found on a seabeach, by some sort of 
inspiration, a particular kind of stone which would re- 
store sight to the blind; and it was to this legend that 
Longfellow alluded in Evangeline — 

Seeking with eager eyes that wondrous stone which the swallow 
Brings from the shore of the sea to restore the sight of her 

Various birds also gave, or strengthened, sight to their 
young by means of certain plants mentioned by old 
herbalists. Finally, it should not be overlooked that on 
page 152 of the most recent edition of Cruden's celebrated 
Concordance 51 to the Bible, among the generally 
astonishing notes beneath the word "eagle" is printed the 
following: "It is said that it preserves its nest from 
poison, by having therein a precious stone, named Aetites 
(without which it is thought the eagle cannot lay her 
eggs, and which some use to prevent abortion and help 
delivery in women, by tying it above or below the navel) 
and keepeth it clean by the frequent use of the herb 


Now it is all well enough to find this information in the 
writings of Pliny senior, who alleges that these "eagle- 
stones" (in fact natural hollow nodules of iron-impreg- 
nated clay) were transported by nesting eagles to their 
domiciles to assist them in ovulation, whence by analogy — 
recognizing unwittingly the kinship of men and animals — 
they would aid women in travail, and to smile over it with 
the shrewd editor of Vulgar Errors, 33 but it is odd to find 
such an absurdity recommended by a modern clergyman 
as "profitable" material for sermons. 

Let me round out this chapter with that recognition of 
bird-migration in the custom among the Vikings of the 
8th and 9th centuries of saying as they embarked upon 
some raid upon the coasts south of them that they were 
"following the swan's path." 


OUR first thought when we hear the word "deluge" 
is of Noah and his Ark, and the funny toy of our 
childhood rises to the mind's eye. In that child- 
hood we had no doubt that the flood described in the 
first book of the Old Testament covered the whole globe. 
Now we know that the story is a Semitic tradition, per- 
haps nothing more than a sun-myth in origin, although 
the actual occurrence of some extraordinary inundation 
may have got mixed with it and localized it. In fact, the 
belief in an all-submerging deluge, or, in what is its 
equivalent — namely, a time when the world was a plain 
of water with no land above its quiet surface — is a part 
of the mythology or theology, or both, of many diverse 
peoples in both hemispheres ; and almost always birds are 
prominently associated with its incidents and the ensuing 
separation of land from water. 

A surprising number of persons of ordinary intelli- 
gence even now, and in this enlightened country, continue 
to regard beds of water- worn gravels, and the fossil 
shells, etc., seen in the rocks, as relics of the Noachian 
deluge, and "diluvian" and "antediluvian" are terms that 
hardly yet have disappeared from popular geology. 

The earliest available accounts of such a deluge as the 
Noachian are engraved on clay tablets recovered from 
the ruins of Babylonia, and written 2000 or more years 
before the beginning of the Christian era. Several narra- 


tives have been deciphered, agreeing in the facts of a 
vast destruction by water in Mesopotamia, and of a 
relatively huge house-boat built by a chosen family for 
the preservation of themselves and an extensive collection 
of livestock. After floating about for seven days this 
Babylonian ship grounded on a submerged hill-top, and 
seven days later the patriarchal shipmaster sent out as ex- 
plorers a dove, a swallow, and a raven. The dove and the 
swallow returned, the raven did not. 

The close similarity between this and the Biblical ac- 
count of Noah's voyage on a world of waters (which 
account appears to be a combination of two separate 
legends) leads to the opinion that the whole narrative is 
derived from some more ancient and widespread Oriental 
tradition ; and there seems fair evidence that it does not 
describe any physical happening at all, but is a symbolical 
sun-myth, a hint of which is given, even in the Bible, by 
the incident of the rainbow. Let me quote the history in 
Genesis so far as it relates to our purpose : 

"And it came to pass at the end of forty days that Noah 
opened the window of the ark which he had made: and he sent 
forth a raven which went forth to and fro until the waters 
were dried up from off the earth. Also he sent forth a dove 
from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of 
the ground. But the dove found no rest for the sole of her 
foot, and she returned unto him into the ark; for the waters 
were on the face of the whole earth. Then he put forth his 
hand and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. 
And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth 
the dove out of the ark. And the dove came in unto him in 
the evening, and, lo, in her mouth was an olive-leaf plucked off: 
so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. 
And he stayed yet other seven days, and sent forth the dove, 
which returned not again unto him any more. 

As to the choice of these particular birds out of Noah's 


great aviary, it is well to remember that doves were sacred 
in ancient Babylonia to Ishtar, who, as the deified 
(female) personification of productiveness, co-existent 
with the (male) Sun-god, was sometimes designated as 
Mother-goddess, or even as "Mother Earth": so that it 
would be highly appropriate to send first a dove as a 
messenger to this incarnation of fruitful land. This falls 
in with Moncure D. Conway's suggestion 56 that the dove 
and raven were tribally "sacred" animals among the 
people affected by this Babylonian deluge. The choice 
of the swallow was natural, when one remembers its 
habit of flying long and far over bodies of water; and 
that the raven should not come back is in keeping with its 
character as much as is the quick return of the semi- 
domestic dove and swallow. Dr. Laufer 52 notes that 
St. Ambrose, in his treatise De Noe et Area, devotes a 
whole chapter to the "crow's" impiety in not returning to 
the Ark. The Arabs, according to Keane, 14 even yet call 
this bird "raven of separation," meaning the separation 
of the water from the land at the close of the Flood. An- 
other Arabic source, quoted by Baring-Gould from the 
medieval Chronicle of Abou-djafer Tabari, transmits tra- 
ditional particulars that considerably extend the too- 
laconic Biblical log of the Ark. "When Noah had left the 
Ark," it relates, "he passed forty days on the mountain, 
till all the water had subsided into the sea. . . . Noah 
said to the raven, 'Go and place your foot on the earth, 
and see what is the depth of the water.' The raven de- 
parted, but having found a carcass it remained to devour 
it and did not return. Noah was provoked, and he cursed 
the raven, saying, 'May God make thee contemptible 
among men, and let carrion be thy food.' " 

Johann von Herder, the poet and friend of Goethe, 


either found or invented another story to account for the 
curse resting on the raven, which runs thus in the words 
of an old translator: 

Anxiously did Noah look forth from his swimming ark, wait- 
ing to see the waters of the flood abate. Scarcely had the 
peaks of the highest mountains emerged from the waves, when 
he called all the fowls around him. "Who among you," said 
he, "will be the messenger to go forth and see whether the 
time of our deliverance is nigh?" The raven with much noise 
crowded hastily in before all the rest: he longed ardently for 
his favorite food. Scarcely was the window open, when he flew 
away and returned no more. The ungrateful bird forgot his 
errand and the interests of his benefactor — he hung at his 
carcass ! But punishment did not delay. The air was yet filled 
with poisonous fog, and heavy vapors hung over the putrid 
corpses; these blinded his eyes and darkened his feathers. As 
a punishment for his forgetfulness, his memory as well as his 
sight became dim; even his own young he did not recognize; 
and he experienced towards them no feelings of parental joy. 

Quoting again the Arab chronicler Abou-djafer Tabari: 
"After that Noah sent forth the dove. The dove de- 
parted, and without tarrying put her foot in the water. 
The water of the Flood scalded and pricked the legs of 
the dove. It was hot and briny and feathers would not 
grow on her legs any more, and the skin scaled off. Now, 
doves which have red and featherless legs are of the sort 
that Noah sent forth. The dove returning showed her 
legs to Noah, who said : 'May God render thee well pleas- 
ing to men/ For that reason the dove is dear to men's 

Still another Arabic version, given by Gustav Weil, is 
that Noah blessed the dove, and since then she has borne 
a necklace of green feathers; but the raven he cursed, 
that its flight should be crooked — never direct like that of 
other birds. This is also a Jewish legend. A more mod- 


ern addendum is that the magpie, one of the same group 
of birds, was not permitted to enter the ark, but was 
compelled to perch on the roof because it gabbled so in- 
cessantly. A quaint 14th-century manuscript quoted by 
Hulme 38 says of the raven's exit from the ark: 

Then opin Noe his window 

Let ut a rauen and forth he flew 

Dune and vp sought heare and thare 

A stede to sett upon somequar. 

Vpon the water sone he fand 

A drinkled best ther flotand 

Of that flees was he so fain 
To ship came he never again. 

To this list of messengers medieval tradition added a 
fourth — the kingfisher, which in Europe is blue-green 
above and rich chestnut on the breast. At that time, how- 
ever, it was a plain gray bird. This scout flew straight up 
to heaven, in order to get a wide survey of the waters, 
and went so near the sun that its breast was scorched to 
its present tint and its back assumed the color of the sky 
overhead. (This recalls Thoreau's saying that our blue- 
bird carries the sky on its back and the earth on its 

Faith in a general flood long ago is shown by primitive 
documents to have prevailed not only in Asia Minor and 
eastward, but in Persia, India and Greece. It did not 
prevail in Europe generally, nor in Africa. On the other 
hand missionaries report traditions of it in Polynesia — 
where, curiously, geographers find evidence of great sub- 
sidences since the archipelagoes affected have been in- 
habited ; and certainly it was a part of the mythical pre- 
history of many tribes among the aborigines of North 
America, where birds were often connected with the ad- 


ventures of the few or solitary survivors by means of 
whom the world was repeopled. Thus scores, perhaps 
hundreds, of varying traditions and fables exist of the 
creation of the earth out of a chaos of water, or of its 
restoration after having been drowned in a universal 
flood ; and often it is hard to distinguish the creation-myth 
from the deluge-tale. 

The American story-material of this nature may be 
divided into groups that would correspond roughly to the 
various aboriginal language-stocks, betraying a family 
likeness in each group, but showing tribal variations as a 
rule connected with each particular tribal or mythical 
"first man," or with the totemic ancestor. 

The creation-legends, as such, do not concern us much. 
They are of purely mythical, supernatural beings of 
various sorts, descending from the sky or coming up out 
of the underworld, and either finding a readymade earth 
to dwell upon or else creating one by magic. Some 
Southern darkies will tell you that the blue jay made the 
earth. "When all de worF was water he brung de fust 
grit er dirt." The strangest conception of this kind is not 
American but that of the Ainus of northern Japan, who 
say that the earth originally was a sterile, cold, unin- 
habitable and dreadful quagmire. The creator existed 
aloft, however, and finally made and despatched a water- 
wagtail to construct a place habitable for men. The bird 
fluttered over the water-spaces, trampled the thin mud 
and beat it down with its feet. Thus ground was 
gradually hardened and elevated in spots, the water 
steadily drained away and good soil was left. Hence the 
Ainus hold the little wagtail in almost worshipful esteem. 

Let us, however, restrict the inquiry to North America, 
and to the deluge-story proper — that is, the destruction of 


human life by water overwhelming a flourishing world, 
and the subsequent restoration. 

The widely spread Algonkin stock has many such 
legends, in which one or several persons and animals sur- 
vive by floating in a canoe or raft, and at their behest a 
beaver or a muskrat — the most natural agents — bring up 
from the bottom a little mud, which is expanded by magic 
into a new continent ; but frequently birds do this service 
or otherwise help to form livable conditions. The Lenni 
Lenape (Delawares) had a tradition of a universal deluge 
in the far distant past, which Dr. Brinton 27 recounted as 
follows, assuring us that it is unmixed with any teaching 
by white missionaries: "The few people that survived 
had taken refuge on the back of a turtle who had reached 
so great an age that his shell was mossy, like the bank of 
a runlet. In this forlorn condition a loon flew that way, 
which they asked to dive and bring up land. He complied 
but found no bottom. Then he flew away and returned 
with a small quantity of earth in his bill. Guided by him, 
the turtle swam to a place where a spot of dry land was 
found. There the survivors settled and re-peopled the 

Few legends explain how or why the flood occurred. 
The Ojibways, however, say that it was the result of the 
malice of an underground monster visualized as a huge 
serpent (recalling the earth-dragon of the Chinese), which 
throughout all their mythology is the antagonist of the 
good, constructive genius represented by their tribal hero 

The Beaver Indians of the Mackenzie Valley offer a 
more materialistic and more picturesque explanation. 
They told George Keith, one of the fur-traders there a 
century ago, whose Letters are printed in Masson's col- 


lection of northern archives," that the deluge resulted 
from the sudden melting of a snowfall so deep that tall 
trees were buried. This disastrous melting was produced 
by the release of the sun from a bug in which it had been 
hidden by sorcery. Then the sun flew away and began 
to shed its heat. There's a sun-myth for you ! 

In the resulting freshet so philosophically accounted for 
the few persons who had been left unburied in the world 
of snow fled toward a high mountain, but only a man 
and a woman reached it. On this mountain were gathered 
pairs of all the kinds of animals in the country. The flood 
persisted, and there was nothing to eat. Then the mal- 
lard, the little grebe, or hell-diver, and the buzzard (?) 
were sent to dive into the sea and try to find its bottom. 
All failed repeatedly, but the buzzard dived again a few 
days later, and came up with his bill full of earth, which 
showed that the flood was subsiding. Finally the waters 
drained away or dried up, but the soil had been so ruined 
by submergence that not even roots could be found to 
serve as food. When everybody was nearly starved, how- 
ever, the human pair and the animals succeeded in finding 
the home of Raven, who lived far away, and from his 
stores they obtained food. Then a new world of life 

The Cheyennes and the Arikarees say that at the height 
of the flood "a person" (masculine) was floating in the 
water with all sorts of aquatic birds swimming about 
him. He asked that one of them dive and get some earth. 
All tried it and failed until a small duck brought up a 
little mud in its beak and gave it to the man. He kneaded 
it with his fingers until it was dry, then made little piles of 
it on the surface of the water, which enlarged and 
coalesced into a wide plain. 


The Chitimacha Indians of northern Lousiana used to 
relate that a great deluge came, whereupon the redheaded 
woodpecker went up to the sky and hung by his claws 
to escape drowning, but his tail hung down into the dirty 
water and was stained black, as you now see it. The 
Pimas and other tribes of Arizona tell similar stories of 
certain birds, one clan of Pueblo Indians putting it on the 
turkey. They say that a flood was produced by the god 
Baholi Konga to punish tribal wickedness. The good 
persons in the community escaped this punishment by 
means of the fact that Baholi Konga had clothed them in 
turkey-skins, enabling them to fly to the high mountains. 
They flew too low, however, and the tails of their dresses 
dragged in the water, the stain of which is still visible. 

With one more and a rather pretty tale from the tradi- 
tions of the Paiute Indians, whose home is in the region 
of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, I must close this 
glance at aboriginal legends of a deluge here in America. 
These Indians relate that formerly the whole world was 
under water save the summit of Mt. Grant, on which 
existed a fire. It was the only fire in the universe, and it 
would have been extinguished when the wind blew hard 
and the waves were dashed against the peak had not the 
sage-hen settled down there and fanned away the water 
with her wings; but while doing this inestimable ser- 
vice to mankind the heat of the precious flame scorched 
her breast, and that accounts for its present blackness. 

A curiously similar story, which illustrates the primi- 
tive savage's perception that obtaining fire was the most 
important, the first, thing to do in beginning or recon- 
stituting a habitable world, appears in the folklore of the 
Arawaks of British Guiana, and may well be told among 
deluge myths. They assure you that the world was once 


engulfed in a flood that left exposed only a hilltop where 
grew some tall cocoanut palms. The heavenly leader, 
Sigu, conducted all the animals to this hill and made such 
as could go up the trees, while others were placed in a 
cave sealed water-tight with wax. (It was during that 
long, distressful waiting in the palm-tops that the howl- 
ing-monkeys perfected the agonizing quality of their 
terrific voices.) Finally the waters subsided and the 
agami (the trumpeter, Psophia crepitans) ventured too 
soon upon the ground in search of food ; thereupon hordes 
of starved ants, issuing from their half-drowned nests, 
swarmed upon its legs, then of respectable size, and so 
nearly devoured them that only the sticklike shanks now 
characteristic of the bird remained. Sigu rescued the un- 
fortunate agami, and then with infinite trouble kindled a 
fire with a spark that the maroodie (or guan, a fellow- 
bird with the agami of South- American barnyards) had 
snapped up in mistake for a shining red insect. The guan 
tried to shift the blame for this sinful error upon the 
alligator but failed to do so, for his own guilt was be- 
trayed by the glowing spark that had stuck in his throat, 
as one may see by looking at any guan to-day. 

Another instance of the misfortunes of the trumpeter 
is related by Leo Miller 53 as he heard it among the 
Maquritari Indians who live on the headwaters of the 
Orinoco : 

In the very beginning of things a trumpeter and a curassow 
[a near cousin of the guan] decided upon a matrimonial 
alliance, but domestic troubles soon broke out, and there was no 
possibility of a reconciliation; it was thereupon decided to lay 
the case before the gods who live on the summit of Mount 
Duida. The wise gods ordered them to fight it out. In the 
course of the combat that followed the curassow pushed the 
trumpeter into the fire, burning off the feathers of the latter's 


tail. The trumpeter promptly retaliated by pushing her mate 
into the fire, singeing his crest. Thereupon the gods decided 
that they should remain in this humiliating plight for the rest 
of their days, and so . . . the curassow wears a curled crest 
and the trumpeter has a very short tail. 

I am tempted, in spite of my intention to stop here, to 
annex an elaborate and somewhat amusing creation-myth 
of the Yocut Indians of southern California, because it is 
both appropriate and picturesque. It is thus set down by 
Powers: 19 

Once there was a time when there was nothing in the world 
but water. About the place where Tulare Lake now is, there 
was a pole standing far up out of the water, and on this pole, 
perched a hawk and a crow ... for many ages. At length they 
wearied of the lonesomeness, and they created the birds which 
prey on fish, such as the kingfisher, eagle, pelican, and others. 
Among them was a very small duck, which dived down to the 
bottom of the water, picked its beak full of mud, came up, died, 
and lay floating on the water. The hawk and crow then fell 
to work and gathered from the duck's beak the earth which it 
had brought up, and commenced making the mountains. They 
began at the place now known as Ta-hi-cha-pa Pass, and the 
hawk made the east range, while the crow made the west one. 
Little by little, as they dropped in the earth, the great mountains 
grew athwart the face of the waters pushing north. It was a 
work of many years, but finally they met at Alt. Shasta, and 
their labors were ended. 

But behold, when they compared their mountains it was 
found that the crow's was a great deal the larger. Then the 
hawk said to the crow. "How did this happen, you rascal? I 
warrant you have been stealing the earth from my bill, and that 
is why your mountains are the biggest." It was a fact, and the 
crow laughed in his claws. Then the hawk went and got some 
Indian tobacco and chewed it and it made him exceedingly wise. 
So he took hold of the mountains and turned them around in a 
circle, putting his range in place of the crow's; and that is why 
the Sierra Nevada is larger than the Coast Range. 



THE crowing of a cock ushered in the momentous 
tragedy that closed the earthly career of Jesus of 
Nazareth. Jesus had told one of his disciples in 
the evening of the Passover, that "the cock shall not 
crow this day before that thou shalt twice deny that thou 
knowest me" {Luke, xxii, 34). Later that same night 
Jesus was arrested and taken into the house of the Jewish 
high priest, and when, one after another, three persons 
had identified Peter as one of the Disciples Peter each 
time denied it, "and immediately, while he yet spake, the 
cock crew. ,, 

Although the cock and his brood have had a part in 
Oriental and classical superstitions, ceremonies, and 
myths since these things began, it is probable that Jesus 
had in mind nothing more than the time of "cock- 
crowing," which among the Jews was a recognized name 
of the third watch of the night, beginning at three o'clock 
in the morning. Mark enumerates the four watch-divis- 
ions when he says: "Ye know not when the master of 
the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock- 
crowing, or in the morning." 

Out of this simple matter, a natural habit of the bird, 
the early Christians, with the avidity of zealots for in- 
spired pegs on which to hang new devotions, set up many 
theories and customs. For instance, I find in the English 



periodical Nature Notes (VI, 189) the following, trans- 
lated from the Treasury of Brunetti Latini, a teacher of 
Dante in the poet's youth: "By the song of the cock we 
may know the hour of the night, and even as the cock 
before it singeth beateth its body with its wings, so should 
a man before he prays flagellate himself." To this added 
a fourteenth-century chant, as follows: 

Cock at midnight croweth loud, 

And in this delighteth: 
But before he crows, his sides 

With his wings he smiteth: 
So the priest at midnight, when 

Him from rest he raiseth, 
Firstly doeth penitence, 

After that he praiseth. 

Ratzel mentions that in Abyssinia cocks were often 
placed in churches as living alarm-clocks. It is a tradition 
that at the moment of the great Birth the cock crowed : 
Christus natus est! Hence as early as the 4th century 
arose the belief in its crowing always on Christmas 
eve — a legend alluded to by Shakespeare: 

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes 
Whereon our Saviour's birth is celebrated, 
The bird of dawning singeth all night long. 

By a similar passage in Hamlet, where Bernardo, 
Heraldo, and Marcellus are discussing the apparition of 
the ghost of Hamlet's father, the reader learns of an- 
other ancient superstition: 

Bern. It was about to speak when the cock crew. 

Her. And then it started like a guilty thing 
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard 
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn, 


Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat 
Awake the god of clay; and, at his warning, 
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air, 
The extravagant and erring spirit hies 
To his confine: and of the truth herein 
This present object made probation. 
Mar. It faded on the crowing of the cock. 

Not only ghosts, but the Devil and all his powers of 
darkness, especially warlocks and witches, must disappear 
at Chanticleer's cheerful warning that daylight is at 

Domestic fowls had become common in Palestine at the 
time of Jesus, having been received long before from 
Persia. According to the Mishna Jews were prohibited 
from selling a white cock to the heathen because it was suit- 
able for sacrifice, but if it were defective it became unsuit- 
able. Cyrus Adler tells us that they used to cut off a toe, and 
so circumvent the prohibition. Says the Talmud : "There 
be three that be unyielding — Israel among the peoples, 
the dog among beasts, and the cock among birds" (Beca, 

No doubt it is true, as Mr. R. L. Gales pointed out a 
few years ago in the National Review, that the sacred 
mythology of the Nativity and Passion, which is far 
wider than my immediate use of it, sprang up when the 
minds of people constantly dwelt on the Faith in a spirit 
of devotion rather than of controversy. "It seems, too, 
that there was in the Christianity of the earlier ages 
something that we may perhaps call a pantheistic ele- 
ment, which has since disappeared." 

Russians tell the story that while Christ was hanging 
on the cross the sparrows were maliciously chirping /if! 
jif! that is, "He is living, He is living!" in order to urge 
the tormenters to fresh cruelties ; but the swallows cried, 


with opposite intent, Umer! Umer!" "Dead! Dead!" 
Therefore the swallow is blessed, but the sparrow is 
under a curse, and ever since that time it hops, because its 
legs are tied together, for its sin, by invisible bonds. 
Another story is that the sparrow was the bird that be- 
trayed the hiding-place of Jesus in the Garden at Geth- 
semane, whereas all other birds tried to entice away the 
officers who were searching for him, especially the 
swallow, whose erratic flight still shows that it is seeking 
to find him. 

The oystercatcher is still known among the Gaels of 
northern Scotland as St. Bride's lad, says Seton Gordon 
{Nineteenth Century, 1927,, p. 420) from the fact that 
when that saint first visited Long Island she carried an 
oystercatcher in each hand; also, there is an old Gaelic 
tradition that this bird covered Jesus with seaweed when 
his enemies appeared in hot pursuit. The oystercatcher was 
therefore blessed, and still shows, as it flies, the form of 
a cross on its plumage. 

A Spanish legend asserts that the owl was once the 
sweetest of singers; but that, having been present when 
Jesus died, from that moment it has shunned daylight, 
and now only repeats in a harsh tone Cruz! Cruz! 

Most of the legends of the Cross, so far as concern 
birds, at least, seem to have arisen in Sweden. The 
Swedes say, for example, that a swallow hovered over the 
Crucifixion crying Svale! Svale! "Cheer up! Cheer up!" 
and it is therefore called in their country the bird of con- 
solation. A similar story is current in Scandinavia of the 
stork, which is said to have cried to the Redeemer, as it 
flew about the Cross, Styrket! Styrket! "Strengthen ye." 
In both cases there is a play on the Swedish names of 
these birds; but they testify that the stork, now virtually 


mute, formerly had a voice. In Sweden, where the red 
crossbill is a familiar winter bird, arose the tradition that 
its peculiarly crossed beak became twisted by its efforts 
to pull the nails from Christ's hands and feet: 

Stained with blood and never tiring 
With its beak it doth not cease, 

From the Cross 't would free the Saviour 
Its creator's son release. 

And the Saviour speaks in mildness: 

Blest be thou of all the good! 
Bear as token of this moment 

Marks of blood and holy rood. 

So Longfellow paraphrases Julius Mosen's little German 

The same loving service has been attributed to the red- 
browed goldfinch of Europe in a legend current in Great 
Britain — a story put into verse in The Spectator 
(London, 19 10) by Pamela Tenant, partly thus: 

Held in his slender beak the cruel thing, 
Still with his gentle might endeavoring 
But to release it. 

Then as he strove, spake One— a dying space- 
Take, for thy pity, as a sign of grace, 
'Semblance of this, my blood, upon thy face 
'A living glory.' 

The complaining love-note of the wood-pigeon has, in 
the northwestern part of Europe, become the subject of a 
well-adapted and pathetic myth, as Watters 57 denomi- 
nates it in his entertaining Birds of Ireland. "It is said 
that a dove perched in the neighborhood of the holy cross 
when the Redeemer was expiring, and, wailing its notes 
of sorrow, kept repeating the words Tvyrie! Kyrie!' 


[Kyrie eleison — Lord have mercy !] to alleviate the agony 
of his dying moments." 

Of all the legends connecting birds with this awful 
scene those relating to the little robin-redbreast of Europe 
are most familiar, for they have been celebrated in poems 
that everyone reads. The story is that the robin, pitying 
the pain of the cruel crown pressed on the Saviour's brow, 
plucked away the sharpest of the thorns; and some say 
that before that moment the bird was all gray, and was 
bound to remain so until it had done something worthy 
of its having a red breast. A forgotten writer, whose 
lines have been preserved in an old volume of Notes and 
Queries, tells the story thus: 

Bearing his cross, while Christ passed by forlorn, 
His Godlike forehead by the mock crown torn, 
A little bird took from that crown one thorn, 
To soothe the dear Redeemer's throbbing head. 
That bird did what she could ; His blood, 't is said, 
Down-dropping dyed her tender bosom red. 
Since then no wanton boy disturbs her nest; 
Weasel nor wildcat will her young molest — 
All sacred deem that bird of ruddy breast. 

The Spaniards, however, believe swallows — also "red- 
breasts" in their way — to be the birds that pulled the 
thorns from Christ's crown — two thousand of them ! 

Another northern tradition is that the robin carries in 
its beak daily a drop of water to those shut up in the 
"burning lake," and that its breast is red because scorched 
by the flames of Gehenna. This old Swedish legend gave 
Whittier the inspiration for an exquisite poem: 

He brings cool dew in his little bill, 
And lets it fall on the souls of sin; 

You can see the mark on his red breast still 
Of fires that scorch as he drops it in. 


Still another theory explains that its reddish front re- 
mains tinctured by the stain it received in trying to 
staunch the blood that flowed from the Redeemer's 
pierced side. 

Almost all boys in Great Britain are, or used to be, 
collectors of birds' eggs, before bird-protecting societies 
and public enlightenment restricted their destructive en- 
thusiasm; but the nest of the "ruddock" (robin) was 
rarely disturbed by the most careless of them, who, if un- 
deterred by any soft sentiment, were frightened by the 
superstition that bad luck followed any such vandalism. 
Many maxims to this effect might be quoted, one of 
which, a proverb in Cornwall, runs : 

He that hurts robin or wren 
Will never prosper, boy or men. 

In Essex they repeat to children a little ballad like this: 

The robin and the redbreast, 

The robin and the wren; 
If ye take out o' their nest 

Ye'U never thrive again. 

The robin and the redbreast, 

The martin and the swallow; 
If ye touch one o' their eggs 

Bad luck will follow. 

The Scotch say it a little differently: 

The laverock and the lintie, 

The robin and the wren; 
If ye harry their nests 

Ye'll never thrive again. 

Let me digress here for a moment. "Laverock" is 
Scottish for lark, meaning the skylark. De Gubernatis, 54 


who discourses learnedly on the mythical connotations of 
the name in India and ancient Greece, finds that the sig- 
nificance of this bird in popular tales is due to its crest, 
which he shows to be an indication that it was among the 
birds of the sun. "The crested lark," he says, "is the same 
as the crested sun, the sun with its rays," and he con- 
tinues: "In the legend of St. Christopher I see an 
equivoque between the word Christos and the word cresta, 
crest, and either way I see the sun personified." 

Whatever these speculations may be worth the old 
stories attribute to the lark that funereal charity which 
belongs to several birds, among them the European robin ; 
and this brings us back to the main track and to the pretty 
story of the Babes in the Woods. Away back in bad old 
times a Norfolk gentleman left legacies to two infant 
children, which were to pass to their uncle if the babies 
died. After a year this uncle hired ruffians to take the 
children into a forest and kill them, but instead the men 
left them there to starve. For a time they ate black- 
berries, but soon became exhausted, lay down, and went 
to sleep, and expired. 

Their little corpse the robin-redbreast found, 
And strew'd with pious bill the leaves around. 8 

More modern poets have made many allusions to this 
touching tale, which Shakespeare knew, for in Cymbeline 
he makes Arviragus say over Imogen — 

Thou shalt not lack 
The flowers that's like thy face, pale primrose; nor 
The azured harebell. . . . The ruddock would 
With charitable bill bring thee all these. 


And in William Collins's Dirge to Cymbclinc are the 

lines : 

The redbreast oft at evening hours 
Shall kindly lend his little aid, 
With heavy moss, and gathered flowers, 
To deck the ground where thou art laid. 

The conceit is far more ancient than Shakespeare or 
Gay or even than Robert Yarrington — who, in 1601, 
wrote a ballad on it concluding, 

No buriall this pretty pair of any man receives 

Till Robin Redbreast piously did cover them with leaves — 

for Horace relates in one of his poems how he as a child 
wandering one day on Mount Vultur fell wearily asleep, 
and was covered by protecting doves with laurel and 
myrtle leaves. 

The robin is always remembered at Christmas in 
the rural villages and farms of northern Europe, 
for it is not migratory. In South Germany the cus- 
tom is to put grain on a roof for the redbreasts, who 
come trustfully about houses at that season, and find 
welcome shelter in barns and straw-stacks: and in 
Sweden and elsewhere an unthreshed sheaf of wheat is 
set up on a pole for their winter fare. 

It will have been noticed that in the ballads quoted, the 
wren is associated with the robin in a protective way. A 
whole book might be written about this least of birds, 
which, although the least, is called "king" in every 
European language. We are told that a wren was in the 
stable at Bethlehem when Christ was born ; and an Irish 
proverb runs: 'The robin and the wren are God's two 
holy men." How surprising, then, to read of a custom 
called Hunting (or in some places Burying) the Wren, 


which once prevailed in southern France, in Keltic parts 
of England, in Wales, and also in Ireland, where it per- 
sisted until abolished by the British Government about the 
middle of the 19th century. Accounts of the practices, 
songs, etc., connected with it may be found in antiquarian 
histories, for example the following from Miles's book of 
Christmas customs: 

In the Isle of Man very early on Christmas morning, when 
the church-bells had rung out midnight, servants went out to 
hunt the wren. They killed the bird, fastened it to the top of 
a long pole; and carried it in procession to every house, chant- 
ing these words: 

We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin, 
We hunted the wren for Jack of the Can, 

We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin, 
We hunted the wren for everyone. 

At each house they sought to collect money. At last, when all 
had been visited, they laid the wren on a bier, carried it to 
the church-yard, and buried it with the utmost solemnity, sing- 
ing Manx dirges. 

It is evident that this is a very ancient practice, and 
embodies in its utterly degenerate state a religious idea 
or symbolism, the meaning of which has been forgotten. 
Why, for example, should the feathers of the murdered 
Manx wrens be preserved, one by one, among the coast 
families, as a talisman preserving the possessor from ship- 
wreck, unless some religious sanction was involved, and 
this may be connected with St. Stephen, the first Christian 
martyr, who was stoned to death ; for this savage custom 
belonged to St. Stephen's Day, December 26, as well as to 
Christmas, or locally in place of Christmas. But why 
the wren, rather than some other bird? The matter is 


interesting enough to justify quoting the broad account 
of the matter furnished by Swann: 47 

An old Irish custom on St. Stephen's Day, and one that 
has not quite died out, was the "hunting of the wren" by boys. 
When captured it was tied, alive but maimed, to a pole (or, 
according to Vallancey — De Reb. Hib., IV, 13 — tied by the 
leg in the center of two hoops placed at right angles with one 
another) and paraded around the neighborhood, a few doggerel 
verses being repeated at each house, while a donation was re- 
quested, one version being; 

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds, 
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze, 
Come, give us a bumper, or give us a cake, 
Or give us a copper, for Charity's sake. 

Yarrell records a similar practice in Kerry, where the peasantry 
on Christmas Day used to hunt the bird with two sticks, "one to 
beat the bushes the other to fling at the bird." Bullock also 
mentions it as prevalent in the Isle of Man, both on Christmas 
Eve and St. Stephen's Day, and tells us it was founded on a 
tradition of a beautiful fairy who lured the male inhabitants 
to a watery grave in the sea, and who to escape subsequent de- 
struction took the form of a wren, which form she was sup- 
posed to be doomed by a spell to reassume each succeeding New 
Year's Day, ultimately perishing by human hands. ... To my 
own knowledge this custom of a "wren hunt" existed in Not- 
tinghamshire also within recent times, the bird being hunted 
along the hedgerows by boys armed with stones, but I do not 
recollect that anything was done with the bird when killed or 
maimed. . . . 

In connection with this belief [alluded to above] in the king- 
ship over other birds, a Twelfth Day custom of parading a 
caged wren in Pembrokeshire, with the lines recited, is described 
in Swainson's Folklore of British Birds, O'Curry has recorded 
that the wren, like the raven, was kept domesticated on account 
of the auguries derived from it, which were employed by the 
Druids. An Irish proverb asserts that "The fox is the cunning- 
est beast in the world barring the wren." According to Dalyell 
the wren is considered an unlucky token in Scotland, but the 
robin a lucky one. 


Explanations of this revolting yet long persistent cus- 
tom have been many and various. A totemic sort of 
theory is that the bird "was once regarded as sacred, and 
the Christmas hunting is the survival of an annual cus- 
tom of slaying the divine animal, such as is found among 
primitive peoples. The carrying of its body from door 
to door is apparently intended to convey to each house a 
portion of its virtues." I know of no facts in history to 
support this theory as applied to the Keltic race. One 
authority tells us that the "crime" for which the bird 
must be punished so ferociously is that it has "a drop o' 
the de'il's blood in its veins," but so has the magpie, which 
is not persecuted. 

Lady Wilde 60 assures us that "the wren is mortally 
hated by the Irish for on one occasion, when the Irish 
troops were approaching to attack a portion of Thomas 
Cromwell's army the wrens came and perched on the 
Irish drums, and by their tapping and noise aroused the 
English soldiers, who fell on the Irish troops and killed 
them all." For this tragic incident we are given no time 
or place; and it happens that the same report was made 
respecting a battle between Irish and Danish invaders 
some 800 years before Cromwell's campaigns in the 
Emerald Isle or anywhere else. 

The real clue to the puzzle is contained in the fact that 
in their barbarous hunt for wrens the men and boys kept 
yelling words that in Cormac's Glossary (10th century) 
are explained as "draoi-en," Druid-bird. We know that 
the Druid priests were accustomed to draw auguries from 
the chirpings of the wren — a divination to which the 
early Christian missionaries objected strenuously. It is 
probable that they condemned the little songster as a 
symbol of heathen rites, and encouraged their converts to 


kill it at the time of the annual Christian feast as a sign 
of abnegation of Druidical connections. The stoning of 
the birds on St. Stephen's Day might be regarded as a 
vengeful reminder of the manner of that martyr's 
murder by a mob. 

One more bird-story is connected with Christianity in 
general — that alluded to in Hamlet, where Ophelia says: 
"Well, God 'ield you ! They say the owl was a baker's 
daughter!" This enigmatical remark probably had ref- 
erence to the story formerly, and perhaps still, com- 
mon among the peasantry in the English Midlands, of a 
baker's daughter that was transformed into an owl by 
Jesus as a punishment for reducing to a very small size 
the large piece of dough which her mother had agreed 
to bake for him. The dough, however, swelled in the 
oven to enormous proportions, to the girl's great astonish- 
ment, and she gasped out "Heu, heu, heu!" This owl- 
like noise suggested her transformation into that bird. 
The story is told to children as a warning lesson against 
illiberal treatment of the poor. It is evidently alluded to, 
also, in Beaumont and Fletcher's play The Nice Valour, 
where the Passionate Lord says, after speaking of a nest 
of owls, "Happy is he whose window opens to a brown 
baker's chimney! he shall be sure there to hear the bird 
sometimes after twilight." In northern Germany they 
say a baker's man was the offender; and that he was 
changed by Jesus into a cuckoo, the white spots in whose 
wings show where the flour was sprinkled on the man's 
dun coat. The Norse people apply the same moral by 
means of their common woodpecker, whose pattern of 
dress is indicated in the legend known to Norse children 
as the Gertrud story, which is prettily related by Miss 
Walker. 39 Brewer's Handbook notes that a maid-ser- 


vant of the Virgin Mary, who had purloined one of her 
mistress's dresses, was converted into a lapwing and con- 
demned forever to cry "Tyvit, tyvit!" (I stole it). The 
source of the anecdote is not given, nor the language of 
the one who interprets it, but it reminds one of Tenny- 

With a lengthened loud halloo, 
Tuwhoo, tuwhit, tuwhit, tuwhoo-o-o. 

The Greeks, according to Andrew Lang, had a similar 
legend of feminine impiety, by which they mystically ex- 
plained the origin of owls and bats. 

The prevalence of a belief in such transformations as 
these by Jesus is very widespread; the traditions vary 
somewhat, as we have seen, in different countries, but it is 
evident that the root is in the primitive notion that such 
miracles were not only possible, but natural. Rather 
more remote and obscure is the connection of birds with 
certain other religious feasts, such as the substitution of 
turkey for boar's-head as the central dish for the Christ- 
mas dinner among the English Dissenters, attributed to 
the fact that turkeys became common about the time of 
the Reformation, and acquired a meritorious character 
on that account among those who wanted to continue the 
Christmas feast without the taint of a dish partaking of 
the customs of the hated Papists. Is our New England 
custom of a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day trace- 
able to this, remembering that the Puritans paid little or 
no heed to Christmas ? 

For centuries, and until comparatively recent times, 
among the sports and jollifications recalling the Roman 
carnival (at the same date) that marked Shrove Tuesday, 
the last day before Lent, both in Britain and in France, 


along with the eating of unlimited pancakes, cock-fight- 
ing and "throwing at cocks" had the most prominent 
place. The last-mentioned sport consisted in fastening 
live cocks in a certain position, and letting men compete 
in throwing clubs at them, the man who killed the bird 
winning it. This atrocious form of amusement did not 
shock the populace of a time when bear-baiting, bull-bait- 
ing, and the pitting of dogs against each other or against 
badgers and rats were popular; yet a few protested, and 
even in the 17th century antiquaries were searching for 
the origin of the custom. Hearne asserted that it was in 
memory of English victories over the French (symbolized 
by the Gallic coq) in the time of Henry V; but the sport 
was customary in France itself long before that time. 
A writer quoted by Smith 61 records that "the common 
account of it is that the crowing of a cock prevented our 
Saxon ancestors from massacring their conquerors, the 
Danes, on the morning of a Shrove Tuesday while asleep 
in their beds/' which recalls one of the explanations of 
the Irish wren-hunting. My own opinion is that the 
custom had no particular significance, but was just a 
sportive way of getting without much cost the material 
for a good dinner, as were the "turkey shoots" of our 
western frontier ; and that Erasmus was fairly right when 
he remarked that "the English eat a certain cake on 
Shrove Tuesday, on which they immediately run mad and 
kill the poor cocks." 

Lent closes with the joyful celebration of Easter, an 
occasion in which the eggs of birds, at least, have a per- 
sistent and prominent part, and doves find a place in 
several Old World ceremonies of the Church. 

In the matter of the almost universal and everywhere 
popular custom of playing with colored eggs at Easter, 


I can do no better than quote The Catholic Encyclopedia, 
article "Easter" : 

Because the use of eggs was forbidden during Lent they were 
brought to the table on Easter Day, colored red to symbolize 
the Easter joy. This custom is found not only in the Latin but 
also in the Oriental Churches. The symbolic meaning of a 
new creation of mankind by Jesus risen from the dead was 
probably an invention of later times. The custom may have its 
origin in Paganism, for a great many pagan customs, celebrat- 
ing the return of spring, gravitated to Easter. The tgg is the 
emblem of the germinating life of early spring. Easter eggs, 
the children are told, come from Rome with the bells which on 
Thursday go to Rome and return Saturday morning. The 
sponsors in some countries give Easter eggs to their god-chil- 
dren. Colored eggs are used by children at Easter in a sort of 
game which consists in testing the strength of the shells. Both 
colored and uncolored eggs are used in some parts of the United 
States in this game, known as "egg-picking." Another practice 
is the "egg-rolling" by children on Easter Monday on the lawn 
of the White House in Washington. 

A quaint feature in this pagan survival in a Christian 
celebration of a momentous incident and idea is the con- 
nection with it of the rabbit. Wherever colored Easter 
eggs are displayed, images of a rabbit are likely to ac- 
company them. Children are told that the Easter Rabbit 
lays the eggs, for which reason they are, in some coun- 
tries, hidden in a nest in the garden. The strangeness of 
the association disappears when we remember that the 
date of the feast is determined by the time when the 
moon first becomes full after the spring equinox, and that 
the rabbit, which has from time immemorial been a sym- 
bol of fertility, is representative of the moon-goddess, 
Luna, which was worshipped annually at a date coincid- 
ing with the Easter festival. Thus, like many other 
pagan rites and symbols significant of reviving nature, it 


became confused with the Christian celebration of the 

At the feast of the Pentecost, on Whitsunday, com- 
memmorating the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the 
Apostles, doves were formerly always employed in 
Europe in staging the solemnities. 

On Whitsuntide, white pigeons tame in strings from heaven fly, 
And one that framed is of wood still hangeth in the skie, 

as we are told by Neogeorgus (151 1-63), speaking of the 
custom in Germany; and elsewhere we learn that in 
Spain pigeons with cakes tied to their legs were let loose 
in churches, where representations of the Holy Ghost 
were a part of the celebration. This last fact accounts for 
the use of the dove — an emblem of the third element of 
the God head, as we shall see. 

To a similar old custom, if Marion Crawford, the 
learned author of Salve Venctia, is not mistaken, we owe 
the picturesque fact that pigeons are a feature of the plaza 
of St. Mark in Venice — one of the "sights" of that 
wonderful city: 

The Venetians always loved processions, and it is to one of 
these pageants that the pigeons of St. Mark's owe their im- 
munity. As early as the end of the fourteenth century it was 
the custom to make a great procession on Palm Sunday, in the 
neighborhood of St. Mark's. A canon of the Cathedral de- 
posited great baskets on the high altar containing the artificial 
palms prepared for the Doge, the chief magistrates, and the 
most important members of the clergy. . . . According to the 
appointed service the procession began immediately after the 
distribution of the palms; and while the choir chanted the 
words "Gloria, latis et honor" of the sacred hymn, a great number 
of pigeons were sent flying from different parts of the facade 
down into the square, having little screws of paper fastened 
to their claws to prevent them from flying too high. The people 


instantly began to catch the birds, and a great many were 
actually taken; but now and then one, stronger than the rest, 
succeeded in gaining the higher parts of the surrounding build- 
ings, enthusiastically cheered by the crowd. 

Those who had once succeeded in making their escape were 
regarded as sacred forever with all their descendants. The 
state provided them with food from its granaries, and before 
long, lest by mistake any free pigeons should be caught on the next 
Palm Sunday the Signory next decreed that other birds must be 
used on the occasion. 

F. Hopkinson Smith, in his Gondola Days, gives a more 
secular account of the origin of the regard felt by the 
Venetians for these "pets of the State," whose ancestor, 
the genial artist writes, brought the good news to Venice 
of the capture (in 1205) of Candia by Admiral Enrico 


CERTAIN kinds of birds have become symbols of 
popular ideas, or even significant badges of 
persons and events, and are thus more or less con- 
ventionalized accessories in art, by reason of their ap- 
pearance (form, color), or their habits, or their connec- 
tion with some historic incident or fabulous tale. In 
many cases this symbolism is of very ancient origin, as 
is most particularly true of the eagle and the dove. The 
eagle is accounted for elsewhere in its various aspects and 
relations: but the dove, by which is meant the prehis- 
torically domesticated blue rock-pigeon, almost deserves 
a chapter to itself. 

To trace the career of the dove in religion, customs, and 
art is, indeed, one of the most engaging of my tasks, and 
the quest discloses a curiously double and diverse symbo- 
lism running almost simultaneously from the beginning 
of history to the present, for this bird serves as an emblem 
of purity and conjugal affection in one association, and 
in another suggests the familiar epithet "soiled." 

The story of this bird goes back to the misty dawn of 
civilization and religion in Mesopotamia, the Garden-of- 
Eden land, where arose the dual "nature-worship" of the 
combining elements heaven and earth, male and female. 
The fecund soil, yielding its fruits to the fertilizing sun- 
shine and rain, sent by the sky-god, became personified as 
Ishtar (Ashtaroth), and to her was assigned the amorous 



and prolific dove as a type of the family concord and 
productiveness she represented; and white doves were 
sold to worshippers at Babylon to be offered as sacrifices 
in her temple. Her worship was spread to Asia Minor 
and the shore of the iEgean by Babylonian and Assyrian 
conquests, and she became known to the Phrygians as 
Cybele, to the Syrians as Darketo, and to the Phoenicians 
as Atagartis, whom the Ionian Greeks called Astarte. 

In these transformations the primitive Ishtar gradually 
fell from her original state as a type of motherhood to 
the baser one of physical love-indulgence, and among 
her votaries were troops of maidens who publicly offered 
their virginity at her shrine, as a form of sacrifice and 

Some of the Syrians are said to have thought of their 
goddess Darketo as "Semiramis," but this was by con- 
fusion with her fabled daughter. Whether or not a real 
woman and queen of that name ever existed, I leave 
to the historians, but a mythical Semiramis belongs to my 
story, and her history was first written by Ctesias, an 
Asiatic-Greek historian of the fourth century B.C. 
Ctesias says that near Askalon was a large lake beside 
which Darketo (otherwise Atagartis) had a habitation; 
she is represented with the face of a woman and the body 
of a fish — perhaps the most antique conception of a mer- 
maid. She fell in love with a fair youth and a girl-baby 
resulted. Then, in shame, Darketo destroyed her lover, 
exposed the child in a rocky desert, and flung herself 
into the lake. The babe, nurtured by doves on milk and 
cheese, was discovered and reared by a herdsman, who 
called the child Semiramis — a Syrian word for "doves." 
At the close of her life this mythical Semiramis changed 
herself into a dove and flew away with certain other 


birds. Hence, in Ctesias's time, divine honors were paid 
in the East to doves; and a dove is the badge of Semi- 
ramis in Syrian monumental art. Diodorus Siculus re- 
peats this account with additional details. 

The sceptre in the hand of the revered image of 
Atagartis in her great temple at Hierapolis bore the 
golden figure of a dove on its summit ; and in Phoenicia, 
Cyprus, Sardinia, and wherever the Phocians and other 
Levantine traders of that day traded and colonized, have 
been found small terra-cotta figures of this goddess, or of 
one of her priestesses, always with a dove. 

To the devotees of this cult, which was confined to the 
coastal region, and in which the Hebrews and other 
Semites of the interior desert-plains took no part, a dove 
was so sacred that if a person even accidentally touched 
one he was "unclean" throughout the day. Hence the 
birds thronged in the villages and houses and swarmed 
about the temple yards, where they were fed by visitors, 
as still is the custom in the Mohammedan mosques that 
have taken their place. This was noted especially at 
Hierapolis, where, according to Lucian, one of the vene- 
rated images had a pigeon's head. 

This religious doctrine, and more particularly the 
Phrygian cult of Cybele, was undoubtedly carried to the 
iEgean islands and to Greece, while civilization was still 
in its infancy there, for the "sea-born" Aphrodite — an 
epithet indicative of her arrival from across the waters — - 
is only Astarte transformed in Greek thought, which 
seems to explain the classic story that Aphrodite was born 
from an egg, with a dove brooding upon it, rolled ashore 
by a fish. 

The focus of religious emotion in those early centuries 
of Greece, at least in Attica, was probably in the most 


ancient of oracles, that at Dodona. Tradition ascribed its 
origin to a dove that spoke with a human voice; and 
among those who served the shrine were three priestesses 
popularly called "Doves," whose duty it was to announce 
oracles requested as if real birds uttered them from the 
foliage of the surrounding oaks — divine trees. Con- 
nected with the cult of Zeus at Dodona was that of 
Aphrodite, then regarded as the goddess of exalted love, 
not of the sensual passion by which in later times her cult 
in Rome, as Venus, became degraded. It was natural, 
as we have seen, that the dove should be associated with 
this pristine Aphrodite, and equally suitable that it should 
be adopted subsequently as the attendant of lascive 
Venus, for as De Kay 18 observes, doves are forever mak- 
ing love and caressing each other. "Chaucer speaks of 
'the wedded turtil with her herte trewe'. ... So the 
bird is by its nature and habits fitted to be the attendant 
and symbol of the goddess of love — the bird that draws 
her flower-studded chariot through the air." A Persian 
poet asks: 

Knowest thou why round his neck the dove 

A collar wears? — it is to tell 
He is the faithful slave of love, 

And serves all those who serve him well. 88 

An interesting memorandum here is the observation by 
A. B. Cook, 37 the erudite author of Zeus, that the oracle 
in the oasis Ammon (Siwah), which Alexander the 
Great took such prodigious trouble to visit and consult, 
was, like that at Dodona, founded by a dove. "More- 
over," Mr. Cook remarks, "Semiramis is said to have 
learned her destiny from Ammon, and to have fulfilled 
it by becoming a dove. ... In short, it appears that the 


whole apparatus of the oracle at Dodona . . . was to be 
matched in the oasis of Ammon. Strabo adds that both 
oracles gave their responses in the selfsame manner, not 
by words but by certain tokens, such as the flight of 

The conception of Aphrodite also included that of 
spring, ushered in by the early return of this migrant 
from its winter resort in Africa and the time when it 
cooed for a mate — the season when "a livelier iris changes 
on the burnished dove"; while the revival of nature in 
spring has always to imaginative souls typified the Resur- 
rection as taught in Christian doctrine and exemplified in 
some of the customs of Easter, which, of course, is only 
an adaptation of the far more ancient festival of rejoicing 
at the return of the sun — the rebirth of the year. 

Another line of thought apparently of Oriental origin, 
but prevalent in northern Europe, connected this dove 
with the Fates and with death, especially death by 
violence — a phase that is traced in wearisome detail back 
to the Rigvedas and other misty sources by the myth- 
readers, and which probably comes from its plaintive 
"cooing." Sometimes, however, the fateful dove brings 
good tidings and succor to the distressed, as in the story 
of Queen Radegund, who in the form of a dove once de- 
livered sailors from shipwreck. 

This is an appropriate place, perhaps, to repeat the 
legend related by the Rhodian Apollonius in his poem 
Argonautica, concerning the Symplegades — the two 
islands that stand on opposite sides of the Bosphorus 
"mouth." It appears that these islands were wont in 
days ancient even to Apollonius to swing together and 
crush any living thing that attempted to pass between 
them and enter the Black Sea. Phineas, who lived on the 


shore near by told Jason, who had arrived there on his 
journey in search of the Golden Fleece, and who wanted 
to go on into the Euxine, how to escape the fatal grasp 
of the island-gates. He was to sail or row the Argo as 
near as he dared to the entrance, then let loose a dove. 
The bird would fly onward, the islands would rush to- 
gether to crush it; and the instant they had swung back 
Jason must drive his ship on between them before they 
could close again. This plan, so clever except for the 
poor bird, succeeded, and broke the magic spell. Living 
heroes had passed safely between them, and ever since 
then the malicious Symplegades have remained stable. 
This story has been scientifically analyzed by the 
mythologists in various ways, but none has deigned to 
consider why a dove was chosen, rather than some other 
bird, as the martyr of the occasion. I am inclined to think 
it was because among sailors of those days the dove was 
believed to help them ; and that, in turn, was owing to its 
association with the "foam-born" Aphrodite, who was 
worshipped by mariners, especially about Cyprus, as god- 
dess of the sea. 

I have dwelt somewhat at length on these antique 
fables, not only to give a glimpse of the nativity of 
certain far more modern, or even existing, ideas and 
customs connected with the dove, but more especially to 
display the background of tradition and feeling that 
affected the minds of people toward this familiar bird at 
the time when Christianity began to manifest itself in 
Italy, and began to replace by a Christian symbolism the 
previous figurative significance of the dove. The highest 
place given it in early Christian thought and art was as 
a representative of the third member of the godhead — 
the Holy Ghost, and it still holds this significance, as 



every one may realize who recalls the hymn beginning 
"Come Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove," which will be sung 
in perhaps hundreds of churches next Sunday. An old 
and natural inference followed, that the devil cannot ever 
take (by magic) the form of this celestial messenger. 

According to an apocryphal gospel the Holy Ghost in 
the semblance of a dove, designated Joseph as the spouse 
of the Virgin Mary by alighting on his head ; and in the 
same manner, according to Eusebius, Fabian was indi- 
cated as divinely appointed to be Pope in the third cen- 
tury. It is said also that at the Council of Nice (A. D. 325 ) 
the creed formulated there was signed by the Holy 
Spirit, appearing as a dove — a legend that magnifies the 
tremendous importance of that document. 

Again, there is the story of the miraculous dove at the 
consecration of Clovis on Christmas Day, 496, at Rheims. 
When Clovis and St. Remi, the bishop, reached the 
baptistery the priest bearing the holy chrism was pre- 
vented by the density of the crowd from reaching the 
font. Then a dove, whiter than snow, brought a vial 
(ampoule) filled with chrism sent from heaven; and the 
bishop took it, and with this miraculous chrism perfumed 
the baptismal water for the Frankish chief by whose vic- 
tories over Germanic barbarians France was founded. 

The lives of medieval saints and martyrs — or at any 
rate, the records of them — abound in such incidents of 
supernatural recognition. Several devoted women on 
taking the vow of virginity received their veils from 
doves hatched in no earthly nest; bishops were more than 
once given approval of public acts, especially when un- 
popular, by similar manifestations of divine approbation, 
doves alighting on their heads. "A dove is the special 
emblem of Gregory the Great (A. D. 590-604), and its 


figure rests on his right shoulder in the magnificent statue 
of this pope in Rome." 

This is in allusion, according to The Catholic Encyclo- 
pedia, "to the well-known story recorded by Peter the 
Deacon {Vita, xxviii), who tells us that when the pope 
was dictating his homilies in Ezechiel a veil was drawn 
between his secretary and himself. As, however, the 
pope remained silent for long periods of time, the servant 
made a hole in the curtain and, looking through, beheld 
a dove seated on Gregory's head with its beak between 
his lips. When the dove withdrew its beak the holy 
pontiff spoke and the secretary took down his words ; but 
when he became silent the servant again applied his eyes 
to the hole and saw that the dove had again placed its 
beak between his lips." Much the same incident belongs 
to the biography of another early pope; and apropos to 
the significance of this bird in the Romanist method of 
demonstrating that faith to the populace, Mackenzie E. 
Walcott contributed the following bit of history to Notes 
and Queries in 1873: 

The dove was regarded as the symbol of the holy spirit 
which came in the eventide of days, bringing safety and peace 
to the ark of Christ and a world rescued from wreck, and to 
whom Christians should be conformed in innocency. A dove 
was suspended over the altar, as Amphilochius says of S. Basil 
that he broke the Holy Bread and placed one third part in the 
pendant golden dove over the altar. The Council of Constanti- 
nople charged a heretic with robbing the gold and silver doves 
that hung above the fonts and altars. The dove was also the 
symbol of our Blessed Lord, as we learn from Prudentius and 
an expression of Tertullian, "the Dove's house," applied to a 
church, probably in allusion to Coloss. i, 20. 

The dove for reservation [that is, withholding a part of the 
eucharist] whether for communion of infants in the baptistery, 
or of sick under a ciborium, was suspended by a chain. One is 
preserved in the church of S. Nazarius at Milan, and a solitary 


mention of another is contained in an inventory of Salisbury. 
In Italy at an early date, the dove was set upon a tower for 
reservation. . . . We also find in early works of devotional art 
the dove represented as flooding a cross with streams of living 
water. There is a famous example in the Lateran, symbolical 
of Holy Baptism. A holy lamb and dove are placed on the 
canopy of the baptistery at Saragossa. 

It seems unlikely that Mohammed could have heard of 
these pontifical sources or methods of divine inspiration, 
yet, according to Brewer, 34 Prideaux, in his Life of 
Mahomet, relates that he taught a dove to pick seed 
placed in his ear as it perched on his shoulder; but the 
wily prophet "gave it out it was the Holy Ghost, in the 
form of a dove, come to impart to him the counsels of 
God." This accounts probably (for Shakespeare may 
well have heard the tradition) for the doubting query in 
Henry V: "Was Mohammed inspired with a dove?" 

Whether this legend is credible or not, it is certain 
that Islam has preserved the ancient Oriental reverence 
for this bird, which now flocks in great numbers around 
all the mosques; and the Moslems have a half-super- 
stitious feeling that any bird that seeks its rest and 
makes its nest about temples and holy buildings must not 
be disturbed — a kindly regard in which swallows share, 
at least in the Near East, where the Mohammedans say 
that the swallow must be a very holy bird, because it 
makes an annual pilgrimage to Mecca. 

John Keane, 14 an Englishman who spent a long time 
in Arabia about forty years ago, records that at Mecca 
vast flocks of pigeons were to be seen in the public space 
surrounding the kaaba. By repeated observations he esti- 
mated that between 5000 and 6000 pigeons assembled 
there daily, all so tame that they would alight on men's 


heads and shoulders. They are still held as almost sacred, 
are never killed, and nest in nearly every building in 
niches left for that purpose in the walls of the rooms. 
Pilgrims purchase baskets of grain to give to the pigeons 
as a pious act, and each benefactor "becomes the vortex 
of a revolving storm of pigeons." In some remote places, 
indeed, these temple-pets become themselves almost ob- 
jects of worship. For example, on the direct road be- 
tween Yarkand and Khotan, Chinese Turkestan, stands 
the locally celebrated pigeon-shrine (Kaptar Mazzar), 
where all good Moslems must dismount and reverently 
approach the sacred spot. "Legend has it that Imam 
Shakir Padshah, trying to convert the Buddhist inhabi- 
tants of the country to Islam by the drastic agency of 
the sword, fell here in battle against the army of Khotan, 
and was buried in the little cemetery. It is affirmed that 
two doves flew forth from the heart of the dead saint, 
and became the ancestors of the swarms of pigeons we 
saw . . . sated with the offerings of the Faithful, and 
extremely fat. . . . We were told that if a hawk were 
to venture to attack them it would fall down dead." 

A pretty story is related by E. Dinet, a French artist, 
in his book of sketches in Algeria. "Doves, which the 
Arabs name imams, because," he was told, "like the imam 
in the mosques, they call the faithful to prayer, and be- 
cause, like him, they do not cease to prostrate themselves 
by inclining their necks in devotions to the Creator." 

Newspapers of the year 192 1 contained an account of 
how two European boys ignorantly provoked a riot in 
Bombay by killing a couple of pigeons in the street. The 
Mohammedans were horrified and the police had difficulty 
in supressing an extensive disturbance; the stock ex- 
change and other general markets were closed, and a 


wide-spread strike of workmen in India was threatened, as 
an evidence of the deep feeling aroused by the boys' 
sacrilegious act. It was evidence also of the panic-force 
of superstition under an appropriate stimulus, and a good 
illustration of Professor George Santayana's definition 
of superstition as "reverence for what hurts." In the 
same year it was reported by telegraph from Brownsville, 
Texas, that a snow-white pigeon flew into Sacred Heart 
Church there on the morning of November 11, during a 
service celebrating Armistice Day, and perched over a 
memorial window, where it remained throughout the 
service. Had it been a sparrow or woodpecker no one 
would have thought of recording the incident. 

Men in the Middle Ages had perfect faith in prodigies 
such as those connected with the holy ampoule of St. 
Remi and the subsequent miracles in which it was so 
efficacious ; and everyone understood their meaning. This 
continued as long as the Church held sway over hearts 
and minds of the populace. Nobody, probably, had the 
disposition, not to say the hardihood, to deny the story — 
you may read it in Froissart — that at the battle of Roose- 
beek (or Rosebeque), which put an end to the power of 
Philip van Artevelde in 1382, a white dove was seen to 
circle about and alight on the French oriflame, which 
then swept on to victory. 

Readers of Malory's Morte D' Arthur will recall that 
as on its appearance the Holy Grail passes before Lance- 
lot's eyes in the castle of Pelleas, a dove, entering at the 
window and carrying a small golden censer in its beak, 
impressed the awe-struck knights of the Table Round as 
a lovely token of the purity and worship to which the 
castle was devoted. Nothing could be more natural in 
medieval romance than this incident — a miracle com- 


memorated in the opera Parsifal. The Venetians still 
assert that the pigeons so familiar and petted in the piazza 
of St. Mark fly three times daily around the city in honor 
of the Trinity. 

A later example: in the first voyage of Hernando 
Cortez to America water and food were almost exhausted, 
and everybody in the vessel was discouraged and 
mutinous, when "came a Dove flying to the Shippe, being 
Good Friday at Sunsett; and sat him on the Shippe-top; 
whereat they were all comforted, and tooke it for a 
miracle and good token . . . and all gave heartie thanks 
to God, directing their course the way the Dove flew." 
Any sort of bird would have been welcome as an indica- 
tion of nearness of land, but a dove meant to them a 
heavenly pilot. No wonder that they were comforted! 
And when they had landed they found in abundance a 
flower (the orchid Peristeria data) which they at once 
named La Flor del Espiritu Santu — Flower of the Holy 
Ghost. Why? Because in its center the consolidated 
pistil and stamens form an unmistakable image of a dove. 

The immediate source of this symbolism is evidently 
the account in the gospels of the divine sanction witnessed 
at the baptism of Jesus. Matthew (iii, 16) records : "Lo, 
the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit 
of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him" ; 
and St. Luke strengthens the realism by writing that 
"the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove." 
Hence this bird is constantly associated with Christ and 
with the Cross by artists and decorative designers; and 
it is no wonder that in so strictly Catholic countries as 
Italy it is considered sacrilegious by many of the people 
to eat the flesh of pigeons. 

"In the fifth century," as Mrs. Jenner tells us in her 


book on Christian symbolism, 63 the dove is shown de- 
scending on the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation. 
After this date the Holy Dove is commonly shown in 
depicting both these subjects, as well as the sacrament of 
baptism. It appears frequently also over the pictures of 
the Virgin and Child, and in pictures of the Creation, 
where "the spirit of God moved on the face of the 
waters. . . . The Holy Spirit as a dove bestowing the 
Gift of Tongues is shown with flames proceeding from 

The prophet Elisha is represented in a window of 
Lincoln College, England, with a two-headed dove on his 
shoulder — evidently an allusion to his petition to Elijah 
(77 Kings, ii, 9) : "I pray thee, let a double portion of 
thy spirit be upon me." 

But this venerated bird has many other meanings in 
Christian art and parable, sometimes so comprehensive 
as to include the Church, or Pope, or Christians generally 
in the sense that they are distinguished from Pagans by 
their gentleness and innocence. 

Reference has been made to the funereal quality of this 
bird, which appears on medieval funerary monuments as 
testimony of death in Christian faith. In the miracle- 
play depicting the career and martyrdom of St. Eulalia 
of Barcelona, which is still enacted annually in the Cata- 
lan village-churches of the eastern Pyrenees, it is repre- 
sented that the tortured soul of the Christian maiden 
escapes to heaven in the form of a dove. Even to-day 
one sees these birds, or a pair of them, carved on tomb- 
stones, or their stuffed skins employed as a part of funeral 
wreaths and accessories, and certain superstitions have 
grown out of this practice, as is related elsewhere. 

The white domestic dove has always been a figure of 


purity by reason, no doubt, of its whiteness, as of un- 
stained snow or light — the same feeling that prescribes 
white raiment in such church services as the confirmation 
of girls, and white veils and flowers for brides. This, 
probably, was the reason, too, why white doves, and even 
geese, were acceptable for sacrifice in the Jewish temple 
of old from those who could not afford to give a lamb. 
Mary, mother of Jesus, offered doves at her sacrificial 
purification ; and that these birds were commonly used for 
that purpose is evident from the fact that a great trade in 
them had grown up in and around the temple in 
Jerusalem, profaning it, so that later Jesus drove away 
from its hallowed precincts "them that sold doves." A 
tradition says that Moses, a good economist, decreed as a 
proper sacrifice-offering either a turtle-dove or two young 
pigeons, because doves were good to eat at any time, 
whereas pigeons (the larger and wilder stock) were tough 
and unpalatable except as squabs; and it is to be re- 
membered that the edible flesh of sacrificed animals was 
afterward eaten, and for that end was divided equally be- 
tween the offerer and the priests. 

A more widespread, popular and persistent notion 
makes the dove the symbol of peace, usually depicted with 
a spray of olive in its beak. How the olive came to have 
this character has been thoroughly discussed by the Rev. 
H. Friend. 11 It appears to be largely an accidental 
acquisition, even if one believes that the idea is derived 
from the olive-leaf brought back by the dove that Noah 
sent forth from the ark. In old times a tree-branch of 
any sort served as does a modern flag of truce between 
warring factions; or was held aloft as a sign of friendly 
intentions when strangers approached others without 


hostile purpose. The tradition of the Deluge suggested, 
and usage has strengthened, the supposition that the olive 
was the proper sort of branch to show (without danger 
of misunderstanding), as was the practice of Roman 
heralds, and the fact that this bird was associated with 
the olive in Biblical legend has made the dove the "bird 
of peace. ,, The olive-tree was given to Athens and the 
world by Pallas Athene, patron of peace and plenty. 

As a matter of ornithology the choice of this bird as a 
representative of peace is an unfortunate one, for pigeons 
are unusually quarrelsome among themselves; it is 
noticeable, however, that in all these relations the sym- 
bolic dove is a white one — not the gray ring-dove. In 
Japan, on the contrary doves are considered messengers 
of war, which perhaps originated in the legend of an 
escape from his enemies by the mythical hero Yoritomo. 
He was hiding in a hollow tree, and when his pursuers 
saw two doves fly out of the hollow they concluded no 
one could be there and passed on. Yoritomo afterward 
became shogun, and he erected shrines to the god of war, 
whose birds are doves, become so, perhaps, by reason of 
their pugnacity. 

Next to the dove (or perhaps the eagle) the peacock 
appears to have most importance among birds as a 
symbol. To us it stands as a vainglorious and foppish 
personality of very little use in a practical world; and 
India has a proverb that the crow that puts on peacock's 
feathers finds that they fall out and that he has left only 
the harsh voice. De Gubernatis 54 quotes another Hindoo 
saying, that this bird has angel's feathers, a devil's voice 
and a thief's walk. Other stories tell of the proud bird's 
chagrin when he looks down and perceives how black and 


glossy are his feet — as old Robert Chester sang it in 
Love's Martyr: 

The proud sun-loving peacocke with his feathers, 

Walkes all alone, thinking himself a king, 

And with his voyce prognosticates all weathers, 

Although God knows but badly doth he sing; 

But when he lookes downe to his base blacke feete, 

He droops, and is asham'd of things unmeete. 

A still earlier poet had sung of this secret chagrin 
attributed to the conceited fowl, and had accounted for 
it by a popular Moslem tradition, illustrated to this day 
by the fact that the Devil-worshipping sect of Yezd, in 
northern Mesopotamia, reverence the peacock as the ac- 
complice of Eblis, which is Satan; my reference is to the 
Persian Azz' Eddin Elmocadessi, 88 who wrote — 

The peacock wedded to the world, 

Of all her gorgeous plumage vain, 
With glowing banners wide unfurled, 

Sweeps slowly by in proud disdain; 
But in her heart a torment lies, 
That dims the lustre of those eyes; 
She turns away her glance — but no, 
Her hideous feet appear below ! 
And fatal echoes, deep and loud, 

Her secret mind's dark caverns stir; 
She knows, though beautiful and proud, 

That Paradise is not for her. 
For, when in Eden's blissful spot 

Lost Eblis tempted man, she dared 
To join the treach'rous angel's plot 

And thus his crime and sentence shared. 
Her frightful claws remind her well 
Of how she sinned and how she fell. 

The native home of this resplendent pheasant is India 
and Malaya, and the brilliance of its plumage (in the 


male sex, to which all that follows refers), the radiating, 
rustling quills and prismatic eye-spots of the magnificent 
tail-coverts, together with other features of the bird's life, 
led to its association in Eastern mythology with the sun 
and sometimes with the rainbow. Taken westward by 
adventurous traders, the glittering dress of the cock 
entered into the popular conception of the phenix, and 
thus the peacock came to be accepted in pagan Greece 
and Italy as a substitute for that gorgeous fiction, as no 
real phenix was obtainable. Naturally the new bird was 
assigned, superseding her homely goose, to Hera (Juno) 
the consort of Zeus (Jupiter) whose cognizance was 
the eagle — the other component of the hybrid phenix; 
and, as Juno was queen of heaven, the bird was 
used by prechristian artists as the symbol of the 
apotheosis of an empress as was the eagle that of an 

These ideas were of Eastern origin, and came with the 
bird when it was introduced into the western world 
from its home in southern Asia, where its harsh cry of 
warning to the jungle whenever it espied a tiger, leopard 
or big snake, was also a welcome signal to the people 
of the woodland villages to be on their guard. "For this 
reason, as well as its habit of foretelling rain by its danc- 
ing and cries of delight, it has from time immemorial 
been held in the East as a bird of magic, or the embodi- 
ment of some god of the forest whose beneficence is well 
worth supplication, and whose resentment might bring dis- 
aster. Hence it was ever protected, not by law, but 
from a feeling of veneration." 

The words quoted are from one of a series of articles 
on Oriental Art by Mrs. Katherine M. Ball, 68 printed in 
Japan (July, 1922), from which the reader may gather 


further facts as to the place the bird holds in the religious 
and artistic thought of the Orient. In China, for ex- 
ample, in the time of the Tang dynasty (8th century, 
A. D.), "many thousand districts," according to the 
chronicles, "paid tribute in peacocks, because their 
feathers were required by the state, not only as decora- 
tions for the imperial processions, but for the designa- 
tion of official rank; for the peacock feather was be- 
stowed upon officials, both military and civil, as a reward 
for faithful service." Such feathers differed according 
to the honor to be dispensed, hence there are the "flower" 
feather, the "green" feather, and the "one-eyed," "two- 
eyed" and "three-eyed," all of which were greatly 
treasured and worn on special occasions. This use of the 
feather is accounted for by Mrs. Ball in this way: "In 
the Chin dynasty a defeated general took refuge in a 
forest where there were many peacocks. When the pur- 
suing forces arrived, and found the fowl so quiet and 
undisturbed, they concluded that no one could possibly 
have come that way, and forthwith abandoned the search. 
The general — who later became known as the ancestor of 
five kings — was thus able to escape, and so grateful was 
he that later when he came into power he instituted the 
custom of conferring a peacock feather as an honor for 
the achievement of bravery in battle." This incident re- 
minds us of the escape of Yoritomo of Japan, and of the 
Tartar general who avoided capture under the protection 
of a quiet owl, as related elsewhere. 

The Japanese are fond of the peacock as a motive in 
their exquisite art, and frequently combine it with the 
peony, as do the Chinese, who consider that. the only 
flower worthy of such association. Another subject fre- 
quently seen illustrated is a representation of the Buddhist 


healing deity Kujako Myowo, the Japanese analogue of 
the Hindoo deification of this fowl. 

Whether the peacock was brought to the Mediterranean 
region from India or Persia or from Phoenicia is un- 
known. It is commonly said that Alexander the Great 
was its introducer ; but wherever it went its symbolic sig- 
nificance accompanied it, otherwise the peoples of 
Greece and Italy would hardly have given it the name of 
their own goddess of light and day, or have held it to be 
a visible sign of the rainbow itself. In combination with 
the eagle it was originally an attribute of Pan, who later 
was obliged to yield it to Juno, the goddess of Heaven, 
thus making it the star-bird, the symbol of the starry 
firmament, on account of the "eyes" in its tail-feathers, 
which were regarded as the very stars themselves. Out 
of this arose many myths, chief among which is that of 
the hundred-eyed Argus — how Argus was set by Juno 
to watch Io, of whom she had been jealous, but was killed 
by Mercury in the interest of the queen's unrepentant 
husband ; and how Juno makes the best of a bad situation : 

Thus Argus lies in pieces cold and pale; 
And all his hundred eyes with all their light 
Are closed at once in one perpetual night. 
These Juno takes, that they no more shall fail, 
And spreads them on her peacock's gaudy tail. 69 

But the Christians, in their revolt against everything 
Pagan, regarded this bird, which like so many other facts 
and fancies of the ancient regime they could not destroy, 
from a new and different angle. They observed that al- 
though it lost (by molting) its splendid raiment yet as 
often it was re-acquired — manifestly a similitude of the 
resurrection of the devoted soul into renewed glories 


after death. The fact was true, of course of all birds, 
but it was most noticeable in this gaudy stranger from the 
land of sunrise; and, in addition, a belief was borrowed 
from the phenix that its flesh was incorruptible. Thus 
the peacock became in early Christian art a symbol of im- 

In the general mental lethargy that marked the Middle 
Ages this elevated idealism was degraded ; yet that some- 
what of the bird's traditional sacredness remained is 
shown by the fact that among the customs of chivalry, 
knights and squires took oath on the king's peacock, 
which, stuffed and brought ceremoniously to the table, 
was a feature in various solemnities. Critics trace to 
this the Shakespearian oath "By cock and pye!" — to my 
mind a dubious gloss. "It is said of Pythagoras," De 
Gubernatis 54 notes, "that he believed himself to have once 
been a peacock, that the peacock's soul entered into 
Euphorbus, a Homeric Trojan hero, that of Euphorbus 
into Homer, and that of Homer into him." Those who 
are familiar with classic literature may be able to con- 
tinue the history of this literary metempsychosis down to 
the present. Hehn and Stallybrass elaborate their history 
of the peacock in custom and myth in exhaustive detail in 
their Wanderings of Plants and Animals. 

A quaint relic of ancient ideas survives in the prevalent 
notion that the beautiful tail-plumes of the peacock are 
unlucky or worse, for it is widely feared that illness and 
death speedily follow putting them into a house, especially 
as affecting the health of youngsters. It occurred to me 
that this superstition, as foolish as it is baleful, was prob- 
ably connected with the far-reaching dread of the Evil 
Eye, having in mind the gleaming ocellse that decorate 
these splendid feathers, but Elworthy's exhaustive 


treatise 06 on that dreaded visitation (especially feared 
among Italians) alludes to the matter only casually, and 
expresses the opinion that the alleged ill-luck is a relic of 
the ancient cult of Juno — a lingering fear that in some 
way her anger may be excited by the plucking of the 
feathers of her favorite bird ; while the idea that so long 
as these plumes are kept in the house no suitors will come 
for the daughters points to the old attribute of spite or 
jealousy in love or matrimonial matters with which Juno 
was always accredited in Pagan times. 

It occurs to me, also, that the fact that the revered 
peacock throws away (moulds) its quills every year sug- 
gests to a superstitious imagination that they may be 
distasteful to the bird, and hence something to be avoided 
by careful devotees. Nevertheless, on Easter Day in 
Rome, when the pope is borne in magnificent state into 
St. Peter's, he waves over the heads of the reverent wor- 
shippers assembled there a fan (flabbellum) of ostrich 
feathers on which have been sewn the eye-spots from 
peacock plumes, the latter, we are told, signifying the 
all-seeing vigilance of the Church — against foolishness as 
well as downright evil, let us hope ! 

No bird is more often employed symbolically in Chris- 
tian art than the pelican, which, like the peacock became a 
representative of salvation through the self-sacrifice of 
Christ. How this developed from the supposed habit of 
resuscitating her nestlings by feeding them blood from 
her bosom, after they had been murdered by the father, is 
explained in another chapter. It is said that the story 
originated in Egypt, with reference to a vulture. St. 
Jerome, however, first gave it a theological application, 
teaching that similarly those dead in sin were made alive 
again by the blood of the Christ. The form — still 



familiar in heraldry — is that of a bird sitting by its nest 
with its beak depressed and tearing at its breast, repre- 
senting "the pelican in its piety," the last word here hav- 
ing its original meaning of parental care. It also became 
a pictured symbol of the Christ and of the Passion, "and 
more particularly of the Eucharist, wherein Christians 
are nourished by Christ himself." Thomas Aquinas 
(13th century) is the author of a well-known verse of 
this import: 

Pelican of Piety, Jesus, Lord and God, 

Cleanse thou me, unclean, in thy most precious blood, 

But a single drop of which doth save and free 

All the universe from its iniquity. 

A similar stanza in John Skelton's Armoury of Birds 
reads : 

Then sayd the Pellycane, 
When my byrdts be slayne, 
With my bloude I them reuyue [revive], 
Scrypture doth record 
The same dyd our Lord, 
And rose from deth to lyue. [life] 

The eagle is to be regarded rather as an emblem than 
as a symbol yet it has a significance of this sort, for by 
the early Christians it was considered a symbol of the 
Ascension. This may have been a pious inversion of the 
custom in Pagan Rome of setting free an eagle at the 
funeral pyre of an emperor, in the belief that this mes- 
senger of Jove would carry the dead monarch's soul 
straight up to Olympus. 

The notion that in death the soul leaves the body in 
the form of a bird is old and very general. Medieval 
biographies of Christian saints and martyrs abound in 
instances, as, for example, the story of Saint Devote, 


found in a boat near Monaco at the moment of her ex- 
piring, with a dove issuing from her lips. 67 The Paris 
Figaro, in October, 1872, describing the ceremonies at 
the death of a gipsy in that city, mentioned that a bird 
was held close to the mouth of the dying girl, ready to re- 
ceive her expired soul. This is not an illogical idea, if 
the conception of a person's soul as a distinct entity is 
conceded; for if it is to fly away to Paradise it must 
have something in the nature of wings, and a bird, or the 
semblance of a real bird, is inevitably suggested, the 
wings of a bat being too repulsive — reserved, in fact, for 
representations of Satan and his emissaries. Angels and 
genii have always been provided by prophets, romancers, 
and artists with swanlike wings, springing from behind 
their shoulders, reckless of comparative anatomy — other- 
wise how could these "heavier-than-air" beings ac- 
complish their travelling? 

I have said that the theory that the disengaged soul de- 
parts to heaven in the form of or by aid of a bird is 
historically very old. Probably, indeed, it is of pre- 
historic antiquity, for various savage peoples have arrived 
at the same doctrine, based on an obvious philosophy. 
For example: Powers 19 tells us that the Keltas of 
southern California believe that when one of the tribe dies 
a little bird flies away with his soul. "If he was a bad 
Indian a hawk will catch the bird and eat it up, body, 
feathers and all; but if he was a good Indian the soul- 
bird will reach the spirit-land." 

In Christian iconography the eagle is the emblem of the 
evangelist St. John, an assignment originating, it is said, 
in Jerome's interpretation of the amazing visions of the 
four "beasts" as recorded in Ezekiel i 15, and somewhat 
less fantastically in Revelations iv.y. Wherever in 


sculpture, painting, or stained glass St. John appears he 
may be recognized by his eagle; and sometimes the bird 
is rather more conspicuous than the saint, as when it is 
bearing him aloft on its back, both gazing, open-eyed and 
resolute, at the sun, as the eagle is fabled to be able to 
do. This association also accounts for the practice of 
carving the support of the reading-desk in both Catholic 
and Anglican churches in the form of an eagle with 
outstretched wings. At the beginning, we are told, 
figures of all four evangelists upheld the lectern; but 
one by one the others disappeared before the demands of 
artistic grace until at last John, "the beloved disciple," 
alone remained, and presently he came to be represented 
only by his emblem. "Medieval writers," remarks B. L. 
Gales, in an article in The National Review (1808), "de- 
light in all sorts of wild and wonderful tales about his," 
that is, the eagle's "renewing his youth by gazing at the 
sun or plunging into a clear stream, and allegorize at 
length on the Waters of Baptism and the true Sun — 
Jesus Christ." This, of course, is simply a comparatively 
modern illustration of the very ancient myth that when 
the sun set in the western ocean, yet arose bright and hot 
next morning, it had rejuvenated itself by its bath as it 
passed from west to east underneath the world. 

In the East, where the sport of falconry originated, and 
where the Mongols trained and employed, and still do, 
eagles as well as hawks, the falcon has acquired much 
interesting symbolism, especially in Japan, as appears in 
many exquisite drawings by early artists ; and often these 
can be fully understood and enjoyed by us of the West 
only when the subtle meaning involved in the picture is 
interpreted to us, or we learn the tradition to which it 
refers. For example, in Hokusai's drawing San Pitku 


(The Three Lucky Things) the mountain symbolizes the 
beauty of nature, the falcon the delights of the chase, 
and the eggplant the wisdom of frugality and of the 
simplicity of life. This undaunted bird (talca, the heroic 
one) is to the Japanese the symbol of victory; and the 
Medal of Victory, which the government confers upon 
distinguished warriors has emblazoned upon it a golden 
falcon, in commemoration of the coming to Japan of its 
mythical ancestor, Jimmu Tenno; for it is related that 
as he set foot up on the Island's shore, a falcon flew 
toward him and lit on his bow, an incident which has ever 
been regarded as prophetic of the success of his under- 

Little can be added in this connection concerning the 
birds of prey. In ancient Egypt the vulture represented 
Nekht, the tutelary deity of the South, who appeared to 
men in that form; and the protection she accorded to 
the queens of Egypt was indicated by the vulture-head- 
dress worn by these ladies at least during the Empire. 
The kite, too, is connected with early Egyptian history, 
according to a tradition, preserved by Diodorus Siculus, 
that the book of religious laws and customs was origi- 
nally brought to Thebes by a kite ; wherefore the sacred 
scribes wore a red cap with a kite's feather in it. 

The cock in Christian religious art is to be interpreted 
as an emblem of vigilance — also as an image of preachers, 
in which may be a touch of humor. "When introduced 
near the figure of St. Peter," says one authority, "it ex- 
presses repentance; in this connection it is one of the 
emblems of the Passion. ,, The placing of the image of 
a cock on church towers is said to be an allusion to Peter 
as the head of the Church on earth, and as representing 
the voice of the Church, which by day and in the watches 


of the night calls on men to repent. Another tradition 
is that some early pope ordered that the weathervane on 
churches be in that form in order to remind the clergy of 
the necessity of watchfulness — a second reference to 
Mark, iii, 35. 

Ragozin tells us that in the Vendida, the "Bible" of the 
ancient Medes, great credit is given to the cock as the 
messenger who calls men to the performance of their 
religious duties: "Arise, O men! Whichever first gets 
up shall enter paradise!" A Hebrew legendary saying 
is that when a cock crows before dawn it warns: "Re- 
member thy Creator, O thoughtless man!" Finally 
Drayton sings of — 

The cock, the country horologe that rings 
The cheerful warning to the sun's awake. 

Nowadays, if chanticleer calls to mind anything in 
particular, except wrath at his too early rising to adore 
the god of day, it is the spirit of boastfulness and "cock- 
sureness"; while his humble mate represents maternal 
cares carried to the extreme of fussiness. 

The names of a good many birds serve as synonyms of 
prevailing ideas, or become figures of speech, without 
having a special myth or story behind them. Thus the 
words eagle and falcon convey to the listener the notion 
of nobility in power, while hawk simply means fierceness, 
with somewhat of prying, detective skill. Old provokes 
in the imagination a rather smiling picture of solemn 
pretence of wisdom — a reputation, by the way, almost 
wholly due to the little European screech-owl's accidental 
association with Pallas Athene. Swallow suggests spring 
all over the world; goose and gull connote easy credulity 
and foolishness; vulture and raven, rapine and cruelty; 


parrot senseless chatter or the lavish repetition of an- 
other's ideas or sayings; cuckoo, poaching on another 
man's domestic preserves ; and so on down to the stork, 
which in Germany symbolizes filial piety because of its 
fancied solicitude toward aged storks, and which children 
are taught to believe brings babies from the fountain to 
their mothers' laps. The Chinese and Japanese peasantry 
hold the Mandarin duck in high esteem as a model of 
conjugal virtues, because it is said to mate for life, and 
Hindoos feel the same toward their (sarus) crane — a 
bird that figures extensively in the legendary lore of both 
China and Japan. Figures of the crane are found deco- 
rating bridal attire in Japan, and this bird is commended 
to womankind generally in Nippon as an example of 
motherhood to be emulated. "In this respect it is like 
the pheasant, which is said to stay by her young during 
a grass-fire, covering them with her outstretched wings 
until, together, they perish in the flames ; for in a similar 
way the crane shields her young from the bitter cold of 
the winter snows." 

In ancient Egypt the plume of the ostrich, "on account 
of the mathematical equality of the opposing barbs in 
point of length — a peculiarity not present in the primary 
feathers of any other bird with which the Egyptians were 
acquainted — was regarded as the sacred symbol of justice." 
Osiris was represented with two ostrich plumes in his 
crown. Says Dr. Cyrus Adler: "The Egyptian con- 
sidered the hoopoe as symbolical of gratitude because it 
repays the early kindness of its parents in their old age 
by trimming their wings and bringing them food when 
they are acquiring new plumage. The Arabs call it 
'doctor/ believing it to possess marvellous medicinal 
qualities, and they use its head in charms and incanta- 


NO one bird known to Americans is so entangled 
with whatever witchcraft belongs to birds as is 
the raven, yet little of it is American besides Poe's 
melodramatic mummery, whose raven was a borrowed 
piece of theatrical property. The shrewd people of this 
country pay little attention to signs and portents, yet some 
survive among us, for the extravagant notions popularly 
held as to the sagacity of our crow, with its "courts" and 
"consultations," are no doubt traceable in some measure 
to the bird's history in Old World superstition. 

In Europe no bird, save possibly the cuckoo, is so laden 
with legends and superstitious veneration as the raven, 
chiefly, however, in the North, where it is not only most 
numerous and noticeable but seems to fit better than in 
the gladsome South. To the rough, virile Baltic man, or 
to the Himalayan mountaineer, worshipping force, care- 
less of beauty, this sable bird of hard endurance, challeng- 
ing cry and powerful wing, the "ravener," tearer, was an 
admirable creature ; while to the more esthetic dweller by 
the Mediterranean or on /Egean shores such qualities 
were repulsive, and the raven became a reminder of 
winter, when alone it was seen in the South, and of the 
savage forests and hated barbarians whence it came. 
Much the same antithesis belongs to this bird and its 
relatives in the minds of Orientals. To understand the 
impression the raven made on primitive men, and the 



symbolism and dread that have grown up about it, one 
must have some knowledge of the real Corvus corax. 

The raven is the largest member of the ornithological 
family Corvidae, measuring two feet from beak to tail- 
tip. It is everywhere black, with steel-blue and purplish 
reflections, and is distinguished from its equally black 
cousins, the crows, by its stouter beak, somewhat hooked 
at the tip, and especially by the elongated and pointed 
feathers on the throat. It is powerful in flight, and is 
noted for performing queer antics in the air. Judged 
by its anatomy it stands high in the scale of classification, 
so that some ornithologists, considering also its intellect, 
have put it quite at the top of the scale — made it the true 
King of Birds. In its northern home this species is to 
be found right around the world, inhabiting Asia and 
Europe as far south as the great ridge of mountains that 
extends from Spain to Siberia, and also living in Asia 
Minor and Syria. It is native to all North America, 
where no arctic island is too remote to be visited by it in 
summer. Most of the ravens fly southward in winter 
from polar latitudes to kindlier regions, but those that 
stay in the far north become doubly conspicuous in a 
wilderness of snow, for they do not turn white in winter 
as do many arctic residents; therefore Goldsmith wasted 
much philosophy in explaining in his Animated Nature 
why they "become white.'' The raven's ordinary call- 
note is well enough described by the words "croak" and 
"caw," but it has many variations. Nuttall quotes Por- 
phyrius as declaring that no less than 64 different intona- 
tions of the raven's cries were distinguished by the sooth- 
sayers of his day, and given appropriate significance. 
Some notes are indescribably queer. 

Ravens have almost disappeared from thickly settled 


regions, in striking contrast to their near relatives the 
crows, rooks, choughs, magpies, jackdaws, and various 
related species in the Old World, which thrive and grow 
tame in the company of civilized humanity. Few pairs 
of ravens remain in the United States east of the Rocky 
Mountains, except on the wilder parts of the Maine coast 
and about Lake Superior. 

Readers of Charles Dickens's novels will recall the imp- 
ish specimen "Grip" that Barnaby Rudge used to carry 
about with him, and which became his fellow-prisoner in 
jail — and served him right, for he was always declaring 
"I'm a devil!" 

This raven was modelled after an actual pet, named 
"Grip," in the family of the novelist when he was writ- 
ing Barnaby Rudge in 184 1. It died in July of that year, 
and its body passed into the possession of Dr. R. T. Judd, 
an English collector of Dickens' material. In 1922 this 
collection, including the stuffed skin of Grip, and its 
former cage, labelled with its owner's name, was offered 
for sale at the Anderson Galleries in New York. It ap- 
pears from accompanying letters that as the novel was 
originally written it contained no reference to the bird; 
but before the manuscript was completed it occurred to 
Mr. Dickens that he could make good use of the mis- 
chievous creature in the story, as is revealed in a letter 
to George Cattermole, dated January 28, 1841. 

The raven may not only be tamed to the point of 
domestication, but will learn to speak a few words. Gold- 
smith asserted, apparently from experience, that it not 
only would speak but could "sing like a man." Like all 
its thievish tribe it loves to pick up and hide objects that 
attract its quick eye, especially if they are bright, like 
a silver spoon or a bit of jewelry; and this acquisitive 


disposition has more than once involved in serious mis- 
fortune servants accused of purloining lost articles, as 
happened in the case of the Jackdaw of Rheims. 

The tradition on which Barham's Ingoldsby Legend is 
embroidered is a very old one, the earliest statement of which, 
probably, is that in Mignie's Patrologia Latinia, compiled by a 
monk of Clairvaux. The narrative is that of an incident in the 
time of Frederick Barbarossa (12th century) when the mon- 
astery of Corvey was ruled by a prince-bishop named Conrad. 
One day he left his episcopal ring lying on the dining-table, and 
it disappeared. The bishop blamed the servants and suspected 
his guests, and finally issued a decree of excommunication to- 
ward any one who had stolen it. Thereupon the bishop's pet 
jackdaw "began to sicken little by little, to loathe his food, to 
cease more and more from his droll croakings and irrational 
follies whereby he was wont to delight the minds of fools who 
neglect to fear God." 

At this dreadful stage it occurred to some bright genius that 
this portentous change in the bird was the effect of the curse, 
and that it was the sought-for thief. Its nest was searched, the 
precious ring was found, the curse was taken off, and the jack- 
daw recovered its plumage and good spirits. 

Where ravens can get other food plentifully they 
seldom attack living animals. Bendire frequently saw 
them feeding among his chickens without harming them, 
yet undoubtedly they are occasionally guilty in our West 
of killing young lambs, game-birds, and poultry, sins 
of which they are much accused in Europe. Certainly 
they rob wild birds of eggs and fledglings, but these evil 
deeds are done mainly in spring, in providing their own 
nestlings with soft food. During most of the year the 
food of the raven consists of carrion, grasshoppers, 
worms, mussels and other shellfish (the larger kinds of 
which they lift high in the air and then drop to break 
their shells), and of ground-squirrels and young rabbits 
when they can get hold of them. 


When a raven alights on a dead animal its first act is 
to pluck out the eyes. One of the barbarities in the an- 
cient East was to throw the bodies of executed criminals 
out to be devoured by beasts and birds of prey — a custom 
of which the Parsee Towers of Silence is a modified relic. 
The popular knowledge of this gave great force to 
Solomon's warning {Proverbs xxx, 17) : "The eye that 
mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, 
the ravens of the valley shall pick it out" — that is, so bad 
a boy would end on the gallows. 

Although ravens were regarded by the ancient 
Zoroastrians as "pure," because they were considered 
necessary to remove pollution from the face of the earth, 
the Jews classed this creature as "unclean" for the same 
reason — it ate carrion. In view of this the Biblical 
legend that the Prophet Elijah, when he hid by the brook 
Kerith from the wrath of Ahab, was fed by ravens at 
command of the Lord, is so unnatural that commentators 
have done their best to explain it away. To this day the 
Moors regard ravens as belonging to Satan. In Chapter 
V of the Koran, where the killing of Cain by his brother 
is described, we read: "And God sent a raven which 
scratched the earth to show him how he should hide the 
shame [that is, the corpse] of his brother, and he said 
Woe is me! am I to be like this raven?* . . . and he 
became one of those who repent." This is from Sale's 
edition, Philadelphia, 1868; and the editor adds a note 
that this legend was derived from the Jews, but that in 
their version the raven appears not to Cain but to Adam, 
who thereupon buried Abel. 

That a bird black as night and its mysteries, a familiar 
of the lightning-riven pine and the storm-beaten crag, 


a ghoulish attendant of battling men and feasting on their 
slain, muttering strange soliloquies, and diabolically cun- 
ning withal — that such a creature should have appealed 
to the rough mariners of the North is far from surpris- 
ing. The supreme Norse god was Odin, an impersona- 
tion of force and intellect — an apotheosis, indeed, of the 
Viking himself; and his ministers were two ravens, 
Hugin and Munin, i.e., Reflection and Memory. 'They 
sit upon his shoulders and whisper in his ears," says 
history. "He sends them out at daybreak to fly over the 
world, and they come back at eve, toward meal-time." 
Hence it is that Odin knows so much, and is called 
Rafnagud, Raven-god. Most solicitously does Odin 
express himself about these ministers in Grunner's lay 
in the Elder Edda : 

Hugin and Munin fly each day 

Over the spacious earth. I fear for Hugin 

That he come not back, 

Yet more anxious am I for Munin. 

Again, in Odin's fierce Raven Song, Hugin goes "to ex- 
plore the heavens." Jupiter's two eagles, sent east and 
west, will be recalled by readers of classic tales. 

As the eagle of Jove became the standard of the 
Roman legions, so Odin's bird was inscribed on the 
shields and the banners of his warrior sons. You may 
see such banners illustrated in the Bayeux tapestry. The 
Dane called his standard landeyda (land- waster), and 
had faith in its miraculous virtues. The original ensign, 
that is, the one brought to England by the first invaders, 
is described in St. Neot's biographical Chronicles (9th 
century). In 878, it records, a wild Danish rover 


named Hubba came with twenty-three ships on a raid 
into Devon : but the people rose and killed or drove away 
all the vikings. 

"And there got they [that is, the Devon men] no 
small spoil, wherein they took, moreover, that banner 
which men call the Raven. For they say that the three 
sisters of Ingwar and Hubba, the daughters, sooth to 
say, of Lodbrock, wove that banner, and made it all 
wholly ready between morn and night of a single day. 
They say, too, that in every fight wherein that flag went 
before them, if they were to win the raven in the midst 
thereof seemed to flutter, as if it were alive, but were 
their doom to be worsted, then it would droop, still and 

Britain came to know well that portentous flag — 

The Danish raven, lured by annual prey, 
Hung o'er the land incessant, 

as Thomson laments. Finally Harold hurled the power 
of Canute from England's shores forever, and Tennyson 
sings Harold's paean: 

We have shattered back 
The hugest wave from Norseland ever yet 
Surged on us, and our battle-axes broken 
The Raven's wing, and dumbed the carrion croak 
From the gray sea forever. 

"The crow and the raven," MacBain 71 announces, "are 
constantly connected in the Northern mythologies with 
battle-deities. 'How is it with you, Ravens?' says the 
Norse Raven Song. 'Whence are you come with gory 
beak at the dawning of the day. . . . You lodged last 


night, I ween, where ye knew the corses were lying.' 
The ravens also assist and protect heroes both in Irish 
and Norse myth. It was a lucky sign if a raven followed 
a warrior." 

But the bold Norse sailors made a more practical use 
also of this knowing bird, for in those days, before the 
compass, they used to take ravens with them in their 
adventurous voyages on the fog-bound northern seas, 
and trust the birds to show them the way back to land. 
A notable instance was Floki's voyage to Iceland in 864 
A. D., a few years after that island's discovery; and the 
French historian Mallet 30 narrates it thus: 

We are told that Floki, previous to setting out on his expe- 
dition, performed a great sacrifice, and having consecrated three 
ravens to the gods took them with him to guide him on his 
voyage. After touching at the Shetland and Faroe islands he 
steered northwest, and when he was fairly out at sea, let loose 
one of his ravens, which, after rising to a considerable elevation, 
directed its flight to the land they had quitted. . . . The second 
bird, after being some time on the wing, returned to the ship, 
a sign that the land was too far distant to be descried even by 
a raven hovering in the sky. Floki therefore continued his 
course, and shortly afterwards let loose his third raven, which 
he followed in its flight until he reached the eastern coast of 

This is a somewhat poetic account, I imagine, of what 
perhaps was a more prosaic custom of seamanship, for 
doubtless it was usual at that time to carry several birds 
on such voyages, and to let them fly from time to time 
that they might learn and indicate to the voyagers 
whether land was near, and in what direction, as did old 
Captain Noah, master of the good ship Ark. Berthold 


Lauffer 52 treats of this point with his customary 
thoroughness in his pamphlet Bird Divination: 

Indian Hindoo navigators kept birds on board ship for the 
purpose of despatching them in search of land. In the Baveru- 
Jataka it is "a crow serving to direct navigators in the four 
quarters" . . . Pliny relates that the seafarers of Taprobane 
(Ceylon) did not observe the stars for the purpose of naviga- 
tion, but carried birds out to sea, which they sent off from time 
to time and then followed the course of the birds' flying in the 
direction of the land. The connection of this practice with 
that described in the Babylonian and Hebraic traditions of the del- 
uge was long ago recognized. . . . When the people of Thera, an 
island in the iEgean Sea emigrated to Libya, ravens flew along 
with them ahead of the ships to show the way. According to 
Justin ... it was by the flight of birds that the Gauls who 
invaded Illyricum were guided. Emperor Jimmu of Japan 
(7th century) engaged in a war expedition and marched under 
the guidance of a gold-colored raven. 

Mr. Lauffer might have added that Callisthenes relates that 
two heaven-sent ravens led the expedition of Alexander across 
the trackless desert from the Mediterranean coast to the oasis 
of Ammon (Siwah), recalling stragglers now and then by 
hoarse croaking. 

The folklore of northern Europe is full of the cunning 
and exploits of this bird and its congeners, which it would 
be a weary task to disentangle from pure myth. In 
Germany there is, or was, a stone gibbet called, with 
gruesome memories, Ravenstone, to which Byron alludes 
in Werner — 

Do you think 
I'll honor you so much as save your throat 
From the Ravenstone by choking myself? 

We read that the old Welsh king Owein, son of Urien, 
had in his army three hundred doughty ravens, consti- 
tuting an irresistible force; perhaps they were only human 


"shock" troops who bore this device on their targes. 
Cuchulain, the savage hero of Irish fables, had, like Odin, 
two magic ravens that advised him of the approach of 
foes. Old-fashioned Germans believe that Frederick I 
(Barbarossa) is sleeping under Raven's Hill at Kaiser- 
lauten, ready to come forth in the last emergency of his 
country. There in his grotto-palace a shepherd found 
him sleeping. Barbarossa awoke and asked: "Are the 
ravens still flying around the hill?" The shepherd 
answered that they were. "Then," sighed the king, "I 
must sleep another hundred years." 

Waterton 73 tells us that a tradition was once current 
throughout the whole of Great Britain that King Arthur 
was changed into a raven (some say a chough) by the art 
of witchcraft; and that in due time he would be restored 
to human form, and return with crown and sceptre. In 
Brittany, where Arthur and his knights are much more 
real than even in Cornwall, the sailor-peasants will assure 
you that he was buried on the little isle of Avalon, just 
off the foreshore of Tregastel, but they will add very 
seriously that he is not dead. If you inquire how that 
can be, they will explain that the great king was con- 
veyed thither magically by Morgan le Fay, and he and 
she dwell there in an underground palace. They are in- 
visible now to all human eyes, and when Arthur wants 
to go out into the air his companion turns him into a 
raven ; and perchance, in proof, your boatman may point 
your gaze toward a real raven sitting on the rocks of the 

Ravens figure in many monkish legends, too, usually in 
a beneficent attitude, in remembrance of their friendly 
offices toward Elijah. Saint Cuthbert and several lesser 
saints and hermits were fed by these or similar birds. 


One hermit subsisted many years on a daily ration of 
half a loaf of bread brought him by a raven, and one 
time, when another saint visited him, the bird pro- 
vided a whole loaf! Fish was frequently brought: and 
once when a certain eremite was ill, the bird furnished 
the fish already cooked, and fed it to the patient bit by 
bit. Miss Walker 39 shows that as a companion of saints 
this bird has had a wide and beneficent experience, which 
may be set against the more conspicuous pages of mis- 
deeds in his highly variegated record. Thus we learn 
that St. Benedict's raven saved his life by bearing away 
the poisoned loaf sent to this saint by a jealous priest. 
"After his torture and death at Saragossa, when the body 
of St. Vincent was thrown to the wild beasts it was res- 
cued by ravens and borne to his brothers at Valencia, 
where it reposed in a tomb till the Christians of that place 
were expelled by the Moors. The remains of the saint 
were . . . again placed in a tomb [at Cape St. Vincent] 
to be guarded forever more by the faithful ravens." 
Have you doubts about this story? Go to that wild head- 
land, where Portugal sets a firm foot against the Atlantic, 
watch the ravens hovering above it, and be convinced! 
And to many other holy men did these noble birds render 
substantial service — to St. Meinrad especially, as is 
affirmed by no less an authority than the great Jerome. 

"In some parts of Germany,'' Miss Walker records, 
"these birds are believed to hold the souls of the damned, 
while in other sections wicked priests only are supposed 
to be so re-incarnated. In Sweden the ravens croaking 
at night in the swamps are said to be the ghosts of mur- 
dered persons who have been denied Christian burial." 
A local and humorous touch is given to this conception 
by the Irish in Kerry, who allege that the rooks there 


are the ghosts of bad old landlords, because they steal 
vegetables from the peasants' gardens — "Always robbin' 
the poor!" 

This eerie feeling is of long descent. The supreme 
war-goddess of the Gaels, as Squire 7 * explains, was 
Morrigu, the Red Woman or war-goddess, who figures 
in the adventures of Cuchulain, and whose favorite dis- 
guise was to change herself into a carrion-crow, the 
"hoodie-crow" of the Scotch. She had assistants who 
revelled among the slain on a battlefield. "These grim 
creatures of the savage mind had immense vitality . . . 
indeed, they may be said to survive still in the supersti- 
tious dislike and suspicion shown in all Keltic-speaking 
countries for their avatar — the hoodie crow." 

In Pennant's Tour in Scotland (1771) is described a 
curious ceremony in which offerings were made by Scot- 
tish herdsmen to the hooded crow, eagle and other 
enemies of sheep to induce them to spare the flocks. A' 
Morayshire saying in old times ran thus: 

The guil, the Gordon, and the hoodie crow, 
Were the three worst things Murray ever saw. 

(The guil, Swann explains, is an obnoxious weed, the 
Gordon refers to the thieving propensities of a neighbor- 
ing clan, and the crow killed lambs and annoyed sickly 
sheep.) "It is interesting," says Wentz, 62 "to observe 
that this Irish war-goddess Morrigu, the bodb or babd, 
. . . has survived to our own day in the fairy-lore of the 
chief Celtic countries. In Ireland the survival in the 
popular and still almost general belief among the 
peasantry that the fairies often exercise their magical 
powers under the form of royston crows; and for this 
reason these birds are always greatly dreaded and 


avoided. The resting of one of them on a peasant's 
cottage may signify many things, but often it means the 
death of one of the family or some great misfortune, the 
bird in such case playing the part of a bean-sidhe 
(banshee)" In the western Highlands "the hoody crow 
plays the same role; and in Brittany fairies assume the 
form of the magpie." 

Under the influence of Christian teaching Odin 
gradually became identified throughout northern Europe 
with Satan: so the raven and all the Corvidae are now 
"Devil's birds" in the folklore of the North. Even the 
magpie is said to have devils' blood in its tongue, and its 
chattering is ominous of evil, requiring various rustic 
charms to counteract its harm — in fact, if the farmer- 
folk are correctly informed, virtually all the birds of this 
family was naturally tainted with deviltry. It is not sur- 
prising then to hear that European crows go down to hell 
once every year, when they must appear before Old 
Nick and give him a tribute of feathers. The time of 
this visit coincides with their moulting-season in mid- 
summer, when the crows retire and remain inconspicuous 
and silent for a time — so maybe it's true ! 

An extraordinary survival of this last notion — unless 
it be original — is found among the negroes of some of 
our Southern States, who say that the "jaybird" (blue- 
jay) is never to be seen on Friday, because on that day 
he is carrying sticks to the Devil in hell ; that in general 
this bird is the Devil's messenger and spy; and that the 
reason he is so gay and noisy on Saturday is that he is 
so glad to get back to earth. An old Georgia darky ex- 
plained the matter a follows : 

"Some folks say Br'er Jay takes a piece er wood, des a 
splinter, down to de bad Place ev'y Friday fer ter help out 


Mister Devil, so's to let him 'n* his wife, ole Aunty Squatty, 
have good kindlin' wood all de time. . . . But some folks tell 
de tale mother way. Dey say he make dat trip ever' Friday 
ter tote down des a grit er dirt. He make de trip sho'. 
Ever'body knows dat. But for what he goes folks tells diffunt 
tales. You sho'ly can't see a jay bird in dis worl' on Friday 
fum twelve o'clock twel three — hit takes 'em des dat long ter 
make de trip. . . . Some folks say Bre'r Jay and all his fambly, 
his folks, his cousins, and his kin, does go dat way and d'rection, 
ev'y one totin' dey grain o' sand in der bill an' drappin' hit in — 
des one teeny weeny grit — wid de good hopes er fillin' up dat 
awful place." 2 

Lousiana negroes are of the opinion that the jay is 
condemned to this weekly trip as a punishment for mis- 
behavior at Christ's crucifixion, but what dreadful deed 
he did has been forgotten. Every reader of "Uncle 
Remus," or of the stories of Mrs. Ruth McEnery Stuart, 
Mr. Harry Stillwell Edwards, and other Southern 
writers, knows how largely the "jaybird" figures in the 
plantation-tales of the negroes, especially of the coastal 
districts, where the blue jay is one of the most conspicuous 
and interesting of resident birds. 

The coming of Christianity, as has been said, swept 
away the images of Odin and of his Pagan familiars 
Hugin and Munin out of both Teutonic and Keltic 
Europe, but it did not sweep away the birds themselves, 
nor discolor their sable wings, nor silence the baleful 
croak; and the impression left by the old tales lingered 
long in the minds of the people. To the horror of the 
raven and his kind among the natives of Britain, as a 
symbol of the northern marauders from whom they had 
so long suffered, was now added the anathema of pious 
missionaries who condemned everything pagan as 
diabolic, and all things black — except their own robes — - 
as typifying the powers of darkness. Truly, remarked 


St. Ambrose, all shamelessness and sin are dark and 
gloomy, and feed on the dead like the crow. A Chinese 
epithet for the raven is "Mongols' coffin." 

The people were sincere enough in this, for behind 
them was not only the Devil-fearing superstition of the 
Middle Ages but a long line of parent myths and folklore 
that made the bird's reputation as black as its plumage, 
and added to this was the new and terrifying idea of 
prophecy. You get a hint of the feeling in Gower's 
Confessio Amantis: 

A Raven by whom yet men maie 
Take evidence, when he crieth, 
That some mishap it signifieth. 

In Greece and Italy ravens were sacred to Apollo, the 
great patron of augurs, who in a pet turned this bird from 
white to black — and an ill turn it was, for black feathers 
make black birds; and in this blackness of coat lies, in 
my opinion, the root of their sinister repute. 

The "jumbie-bird," or "big witch," of the West Indian 
region, for example, is the dead-black ani, a kind of 
cuckoo. Spenser speaks of "the hoarse night-raven, 
trompe of doleful dreer," but his "night-raven" was not 
a raven at all, but the bittern. 

It is only in an earlier day and under a brighter sky 
that we find these corvine prophets taking a more 
cheerful view of the future. Of course they are among 
the "rain-birds": 

How the curst raven with his harmless voice 
Invokes the rain. 

So the "foresight of a raven" became proverbial, as 


Waterton 73 illustrates by an anecdote: "Good farmer 
Muckdrag's wife, while jogging on with eggs to market, 
knew there was mischief brewing as soon as she had 
heard a raven croak on the unlucky side of the road: 

"That raven on the left-hand oak, 
Curse on his ill-betiding croak, 
Bodes me no good !" 

She had scarcely uttered this when down came her old 
stumbling mare to the ground. Her every egg was 
smashed to atoms ; and whilst she lay sprawling . . . she 
was perfectly convinced in her own mind that the raven 
had clearly foreseen her irreparable misadventure." 

If one alighted on a church-tower the whole parish 
trembled, and when a cottager saw one perched on his 
roof-tree he made his will; or if it happened that a 
man or woman was ill in his house the death of that 
person was regarded as certain. The more learned 
would quote for you how Tiberius, Plato, Cicero and 
other great men of the past had been similarly warned, 
and doubtless many a person has died in these circum- 
stances of nervous fright and discouragement. It is to 
this dread that Marlowe refers in his Jew of Malta: 

Like the sad presaging raven that tolls 
The sick man's passport in her hollow beak, 
And, in the shadow of the silent night, 
Does shake contagion from her sable wing. 

The last line contains a new and heinous calumny 
widely credited. So Shakespeare makes Caliban threaten 
Prospero and Ariel with 

As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed 
With raven's feather from unwholesome fen. 



I wonder, by the way, who first spoke — the simile is, 
at any rate, as old as Chaucer's time — of the wrinkles that 
gather about the corners of our eyes when we get on in 
life, as "crow's feet"? Frederick Locker sings of his 

Her locks as white as snow, 
Once shamed the swarthy crow; 

That fowl's avenging sprite 
Set his cruel foot for spite 

Near her eye. 

The expression of course is a suggestion of the radiat- 
ing form of the wrinkles at the outer corner of the eye 
to a crow's track; and this reminds us of the fact that 
when soon after the Norman conquest in England there 
was a vast popular interest in royal genealogy, people 
spoke of the branching form of a family tree, when 
drawn on paper, as a "crane's foot" (pied de grue), 
whence our term pedigree. 

Omens are deduced from the flight and cries of ravens, 
crows, magpies, and certain other corvine species, 
especially as regards their direction relative to the in- 
quirer. Horace, for example, in his Ode to Galatea on 
her undertaking a journey, tells her that he, as a "prov- 
ident augur," 

Ere the wierd crow, re-seeking stagnant marshes, 
Predict the rainstorm, will invoke the raven 
From the far East, who, as the priestlier croaker, 
Shall overawe him. 

That is to say, Horace will make the raven, appearing or 
heard from the eastward (the lucky direction), over-rule 
the bad omen of the crow. 


There is also grave meaning in the number visible at 
one time, as Matthew Lewis knew when he wrote the 
ballad Bill Jones: 

"Ah, well-a-day," the sailor said, 
"Some danger must impend, 
Three ravens sit in yonder glade, 
And evil will happen I'm sore afraid 
Ere we reach our journey's end." 

"And what have the ravens with us to do? 

Does their sight betoken us evil?" 
"To see one raven is luck, 'tis true, 
But it's certain misfortune to light upon two, 

And meeting with three is the devil." 

Quoting Margaret Walker: 39 

The belief in his power of divination was so general that 
knowledge of the whereabouts of the lost has come to be known 
as "raven's knowledge." To the Romans he was able to reveal 
the means of restoring lost eyesight even. In Germany he was 
able to tell not only where lost articles were, but could also 
make known to survivors where the souls of their lost friends 
were to be found. In Bohemia he was assigned the task usually 
performed by the stork in other lands, while in some parts 
of Germany witches were credited with riding upon his back in- 
stead of on the conventional broomstick. 

Regular formulas regarding magpies are repeated in 
rural Britain, where magpies are numerous — they are 
common in our American West, also, but nobody is super- 
stitious about them there — of which a common example 

One for sorrow, two for mirth, 
Three for a wedding, four for a birth. 

Many variations of these formulas are on record, some 
carrying the rimes up to eight or nine pies seen at once ; 



and folklore has many quaint ways of dissipating the 
evil effects feared from their presence. 

Now all this is but the ragtag and bobtail, as it were, 
of the science of the ancient Oriental world that has come 
down to us in frayed and disconnected fragments, to be 
now a matter more of amusing research than of belief or 
practice among most of us. It was old even at the be- 
ginning of the Christian era, but all the ornithomancy of 
the Greek and Roman soothsayers was inherited in its 
principle, if not always in its forms, from the remotely 
antique "wisdom" of the East, in which the consultation 
of birds appears to be the basis of divination. 

In the Far East the raven has been regarded from 
time immemorial with dread interest, and where that 
species was rare the crow — equally black, destructive, 
and cunning — took its place. To the primitive phi- 
losophers of Persia and India the raven was a divine bird, 
of celestial origin and supernatural abilities, and was the 
messenger who announced the will of the Deity. A 
German commentator on the Vcdas, H. Oldenberg, con- 
cludes that the animals sent by the gods, as pictured in the 
myths, were those of a weird, demoniacal nature, and 
were for this reason themselves deified, but subsequently 
became mere stewards to divine mandators. "In the 
belief of the Persians/' says Lauffer, "the raven was 
sacred to the god of light and the sun." Moncure D. Con- 
way, 66 when discussing the Biblical legend of the Deluge, 
suggests that the raven sent out of the Ark may typify 
the "darkness of the face of the deep," and the dove the 
"spirit of God" that "moved upon the face of the waters." 
In China, Dr. Williams 76 tells us, "the sun is signalized 
by the figure of a raven in a circle." I have seen Chinese 
drawings of it in which the raven (or a crow) stood on 


three legs, as does the toad that the Taoists see in the 
moon — but why three legs? Mrs. Ball answers this 
question thus : 

The crow — known in China as wuya, and in Japan as karasu 
■ — is most intimately related to the sun. Ch'un Ch'iu in an 
ancient poem says: ''The spirit of the sun is a crow with three 
legs"; while again Hwai Nan Tse, an ancient philosopher, ex- 
plains that this crow has three legs because the number three 
is the emblem of yang [light, good] of which the sun is the 
supreme essence. . . . The Chinese, it would appear, actually 
believed in the existence of a three-legged crow, for in the 
official history of the Wei dynasty — 3d century A. D. — it is 
related that "more than thirty times, tributes consisting of three- 
legged crows were brought from the neighboring countries. 
. . . The principal of sun-worship [in Japan] was Amateresu 
no Ohokami, from whom the imperial family traces its descent. 
This divinity . . . had as her messenger and attendant ... a 
red bird having three legs." 

Based on the fears and philosophy indicated above, the 
soothsayers of India contrived a most elaborate scheme 
of judging meanings from the actions of ravens and 
crows, for little attention seems to have been paid to 
ornithological distinctions; and this spread in very early 
times to China and Thibet. It is a wonderful monument 
of priestcraft, which has been elucidated by several 
students of early Oriental manuscripts; and I am in- 
debted to a profoundly learned discourse on the subject 
by Dr. Berthold Lauffer. 52 Briefly the scheme was as 

A table or chart was constructed containing ninety 
squares, each square holding an interpretation of one or 
another sound of a raven's or crow's voice; but his 
utterances were separated into five characters of sound, 
and the day divided into five "watches," while the direc- 
tion from which the bird's voice came may be from any 


one of eight points of the compass, or from the zenith, 
making nine points in all. Multiplying these together 
gives the ninety squares of the mystic table, and the inter- 
section of two conditions gives you the square where the 
appropriate interpretation or prophecy is written. 

Thus if in the first watch (i.e., early in the morning) 
you hear a raven in the east say ka-ka, your wish to ob- 
tain more property will be fulfilled; but if in the fourth 
watch you hear a bird off in the southeast say da-da you 
may be sure that a storm will arise in seven days. Five 
different tones of the cawing were recognized as sig- 
nificant. Just where and what you see a raven do when 
you are travelling foretells some sort of a fortunate or 
unfortunate incident of the progress or outcome of your 
journey; yet these omens differ according to whether you 
are moving and the bird is stationary, or you are stand- 
ing still and the bird is flying, or both or neither are 
motionless ! 

There was also a settled rule for taking prognostica- 
tions from the nests of these birds. "When a crow has 
built its nest on a branch on the east side of a tree," ac- 
cording to Donacila's translation of a Thibetan manu- 
script, "a good year and rain will be the result of it. 
When it has built its nest on a southern branch the crops 
will then be bad. When it has built its nest on a branch 
in the middle of a tree, a great fright will then be the re- 
sult of it. When it makes its nest below, fear of the 
army of one's adversary will be the result of it. When it 
makes its nest on a wall, on the ground, or on a river, 
the [sick] king will be healed." 

Whenever it appears that the omen observed portends 
harm, offerings of food and so forth must be made to 
the bird in order to avert the evil, and these offerings vary 


according to prescribed rules. It is no wonder that an 
extensive priesthood was needed to aid in this intricate 
guarding against danger or the foretelling of benefits 
to come; and one suspects that the whole thing was a 
clever invention by the sacerdotal class to provide priests 
with a good living. Nor have the practices, and much 
less the superstitious notions behind them, become wholly 
obsolete, for not only in India and China are the move- 
ments of birds now watched with anxiety, and offerings 
made to them in the temples and individually by the 
peasantry, but similar ideas and practices prevail in all 
Malayan lands, as readers of such books as Skeat's Malay 
Magic 7 may learn. 

Perhaps learned students of ancient ways of thinking 
may be able to explain why the direction of a prophetic 
bird from the listener was an essential element in its 
message: for example, why is the cawing of a crow 
east of you a more favorable portent than cawing from 
the west? Lord Lytton studies this question briefly in 
the Notes to his translation of the Odes of Horace, who, 
in his Ode to Galatea, exclaims : 

May no chough's dark shadow 
Lose thee a sunbeam, nor one green woodpecker 
Dare to tap leftward. 

Why should "leftward" (Icevus) signify ill-luck in this 
case, when the left was considered lucky by the Romans, 
although unlucky by the Greeks? "It is suggested," is 
Lytton's comment, "that the comparison may have arisen 
from the different practice of the Greeks and Romans in 
taking note of birds — the former facing north, the latter 
south [an attitude connected with migration?] I believe, 
however, it was the tap of the woodpecker, and not his 


flight, that was unlucky. It is so considered still in 
Italy, and corresponds to our superstitious fear of the 
beetle called the death-watch. If, therefore, heard on the 
left, or heart side, it directly menaced life." 

I leave the solution of the general problem of the 
value of direction in ancient ornithomancy to the 
Orientalists, advising them that a hint of subtile and half- 
forgotten reasons for such distinctions may be found in 
the ideas prevailing among the shamans, or "medicine 
men," of our southwestern village-Indians; among the 
Hopi (miscalled Mokis), for example, North is repre- 
sented in their mystical ceremonies by yellow, West by 
blue, South by red, and East by white. 

Religious interest in black-hued birds is not confined 
to the Old World, as was tragically illustrated in that 
remarkable excitement among the Indians of the Upper 
Missouri region in 1890, known as the Ghost Dance, of 
which the crow was the honored symbol. James 
Mooney, 77 of the United States Bureau of Ethnology, in- 
vestigated this outburst of sentiment very thoroughly, 
and explained it at length in the 14th Annual Report of 
that Bureau, from which I extract the information as to 
the crow's part in the matter. Dr. Mooney reminds us in 
advance that the crow was probably held sacred by all 
the tribes of the Algonquian race. Roger Williams, 
speaking of the New England tribes, says that although 
the crow did damage to the corn, hardly an Indian would 
kill one, because it was their tradition that this bird had 
brought them their first grain and vegetables, "carrying 
a grain of corn in one ear and a bean in the other from 
the field of their great god Cautantouwit in Sowwaniu, 
the Southwest, the happy spirit-world where dwelt the 
gods and the souls of the great and good." 


The so-called Ghost Dance meant to the Plains Indians 
generally a preparation for the coming of a superhuman 
Messiah who would restore the old order of things when 
the redman was supreme in the land, and free from the 
restraint of an alien and encroaching civilization; and 
primarily it contained no special hostility toward white 

Among the western redmen the eagle for its general 
superiority, the magpie (particularly by the Paiutes), 
the sagehen because connected with the country whence 
the Messiah was to come, and some other birds, were re- 
vered in certain subsidiary ceremonies; but the central 
bird-figure in this excitement was the crow, for it was 
regarded as the directing messenger from the spirit- 
world, because its color is a reminder of death and the 
shadow-land. I have seen the figures of two upward fly- 
ing crows and two magpies in a "medicine shirt" made 
to be worn in the Ghost Dance. The raven shared in this 
devotional respect, but is rare on the northern plains, 
where its humbler relative was an abundant substitute. 
Some understanding of this supreme position of the crow 
in the Ghost-dancing — the equivalent of our "revival" 
meetings — may be had by examining the Arapahoe 
version of the belief on which the anticipated advent of 
a red Messiah was based. Dr. Mooney expounds it 7T as 

In Arapahoe belief the spirit world is in the west, not on the 
same level with this earth of ours, but higher up, and sepa- 
rated also from it by a body of water. . . . The crow, as the 
messenger and leader of the spirits who had gone before [i.e. 
the dead] collected their armies on the other side and advanced 
at their head to the hither limit of the shadow-land. Then, 
looking over, they saw far below them a sea, and far out be- 
yond it toward the east was the boundary of the earth, where 


lived the friends they were marching to rejoin. Taking up 
a pebble in his beak, the crow then dropped it into the water 
and it became a mountain towering up to the land of the 
dead. Down its rocky slope he brought his army until they 
halted at the edge of the water. Then taking some dust in his 
bill the crow flew out and dropped it into the water as he flew, 
and it became a solid arm of land stretching from the spirit 
world to the earth. He returned and flew out again, this time 
with some blades of grass, which he dropped upon the land 
thus made and at once it. was covered with a green sod. Again 
he returned and again flew out, this time with some twigs in 
his bill, and dropping these also upon the new land, at once it 
was covered with a forest of trees. Again he flew back to the 
base of the mountain, and is now [that is, at the time of the 
Ghost dancing] coming on at the head of all the countless spirit- 


I FEAR no one would admit that a book of this 
character was anywhere near complete did it not in- 
clude at least one chapter on the observances and 
superstitions connected with owls. Nevertheless I doubt 
whether I should not have taken the risk of the reader's 
displeasure had I not been able to avail myself of essays 
by several men who have handled this large and intricate 
phase of bird-lore in a way that discourages any rivalry. 
The Atlantic Monthly for September, 1874, contained 
an article by Alexander Young on "Birds of 111 omen/' 
in which one may find treated not only the historic dread 
of owls, but many similar facts and fears connected with 
ravens, crows, magpies, and their fellow-craftsmen in 
alleged diabolism. "Most birds," Mr. Young remarks, 
"were considered ominous of good or evil according to 
the place and manner of their appearance. ... It is 
noticeable that this stigma has been affixed only to those 
birds whose appearance or voice is disagreeable, and 
whose habits are somewhat peculiar." The nocturnal 
owls perhaps fulfil these conditions as well as any bird 
could. "Their retired habits," to quote Broderip, 78 "the 
desolate places that are their favorite haunts, their hollow 
hootings, fearful shrieks, serpent-like hissings and coffin- 
maker-like snappings, have helped to give them a bad 
eminence, more than overbalancing all the glory that 
Minerva and her own Athens could shed around them." 



The little Grecian owl — it is a foreign replica of our 
own small screech owl, which, as a matter of fact, gurgles 
rather melodiously instead of screeching — was well 
thought of in Athens in its prime, and was the special 
cognizance of the wise and dignified goddess of her 
citizens, Pallas Athene — Minerva of the Romans. De 
Kay, 18 indeed, reasons her out an owl-goddess, and it is 
said that statues of her have been found with an owl's in- 
stead of a human head. If she was a humanized ex- 
pression for the moon, as some interpret her, this little 
lover of moonlight is most suitable as her symbol. There- 
fore one need not speculate on the reputed "wisdom" of 
the owl, any owl — said to be proved wise by its being the 
only bird that looks straight before it — for that reputa- 
tion is merely a reflection from the attributes of its 
patron, the stately goddess. Homer makes Athene the 
special protector of those, chiefly women, engaged in 
textile crafts ; and there is an old saying that the owl was 
a weaver's daughter, spinning with silver threads. When, 
therefore, in the midst of the momentous naval battle of 
Salamis an owl alighted on the mast of the flagship of 
Admiral Themistocles, as tradition attests, it was re- 
ceived as an assurance from Pallas Athene herself that 
she was fighting with and for the harassed Greeks. The 
bird is displayed as large as space permits on Greek coins 
of the period. 

When the Romans took over Athene as Minerva her 
owl came with her, but its symbolic importance quickly 
faded. The Italians cared nothing for their little "strix" 
— had no use for it except to eat it or make it a lure for 
their bird-catching nets, and even charged it with suck- 
ing the blood of children ; and they had no respect at all 
for the rest of its tribe. The language applied to them by 


the Latin poets reveals the detestation and dread with 
which owls were held among the Romans. Derogatory 
references abound in books of the classical era, and 
similar sentiments might be quoted from authors down 
into medieval times. Even the elder Pliny, called a 
naturalist, but really hardly more than a too credulous 
compiler, condemns the tribe in very harsh words — 
especially the big-horned species; yet he only reflected 
the general belief that they were messengers of death, 
whence everybody trembled if one was seen in the town 
or alighted on any housetop. One luckless owl that 
made a flying trip to the Capitol was caught and burnt, 
and its ashes were cast into the Tiber. Twice Rome 
underwent ceremonial purification on this account, 
whence Butler's jibe in Hitdibras: 

The Roman senate, when within 

The city walls an owl was seen, 

Did cause their clergy with lustrations 

(Our synod calls humiliations) 

The round-faced prodigy t' avert 

From doing town and country hurt. 

The deaths of several Roman emperors, among them 
Valentinian and Commodus Antoninus, were presaged 
by owls alighting on their residences, and it is recorded 
that before the death of the great Augustus an owl sang 
on the Curia. 

In central India the owl is now generally regarded as 
a bird of ill omen. "If one happens to perch on the 
house of a native, it is a sign that one of his household 
will die, or some other misfortune befall him within a 
year. This can only be averted by giving the house or its 
value in money to the Brahmins, or making extraordi- 
nary peace-offering to the gods." It is easy to calculate 


the origin of that particular form of superstition. In 
southern India, according to Thurston (quoted by 
Lauffer), the same dread prevails; and there the natives 
interpret the bird's cries by their number, much as they 
did those of crows. "One such screech forebodes death ; 
two screeches, success in any approaching undertaking; 
three, the addition by marriage of a girl to the family; 
four, a disturbance ; five, that the hearer will travel. Six 
screeches foretell the coming of guests; seven, mental 
distress; eight, sudden death; and nine signify favorable 
results. The number nine plays a great role in systems 
of divination." 

In view of this Oriental and Greco-Latin history, 
which spread with the imperial civilization into all west- 
ern Europe, and in view of the bad associations of these 
birds in the Old Testament, where they are pronounced 
"unclean," and relegated to the desert as companions of 
a dreadful company (Isaiah, xxxiv, n), it was natural 
that owls should be regarded with almost insane fear and 
aversion in the Middle Ages, as the record shows they 
were. In Sweden even yet, the owl is considered a bird 
of sorcery, and great caution is necessary in speaking of 
any of them to avoid being ensnared; moreover it is 
dangerous to kill one, as its associates might avenge its 
death. Nuttall, 79 the English-American ornithologist, 
notes that he often heard the following couplet when he 
was a child in the old country: 

Oh ! — o-o-o — o-o ! 
I was once a king's daughter, and sat on my father's knee, 
But now I'm a poor hoolet, and hide in a hollow tree. 

This is explained in the northern counties of England 
by a legend that Pharaoh's daughter was transformed 


into an owl, and when children hear at night the screams 
of one of these nocturnal hunters they are told the story 
of its strange origin — but why Pharaoh's daughter? 
Then there is that cryptic "little ode" quoted from the 
memory of his childhood by Charles Waterton 73 in ref- 
erence to the barn-owl, and explained elsewhere in this 
book, which runs thus : 

Once I was a monarch's daughter, and sat on a lady's knee, 
But now I'm a nightly rover, banished to the ivy-tree, 
Crying hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, 

for my feet are cold 
Pity me, for here you see me, persecuted, poor and old. 

If the delvers into Indo-European mythology are 
right, the dread of owls existed long before the Romans 
colonized among Gauls and Britons, and were in turn 
overrun by Teutonic hordes. It exists among the wild- 
est savages in every part of the world where owls prowl 
with ghostly silence and stealth and hoot in the darkness, 
startling men's nerves, and it survives in all peasantries. 
In that delightful Sicilian book by Mrs. John L. 
Heaton, 80 we have a narrative of a journey after dark 
with some village-women. "A screech-owl [citca] 
hooted. Gra Vainia crossed herself, and Donna Ciccia 
muttered: 'Beautiful Mother of the Rock, deliver us!' 
Donna Catina touched something [a gold cross] in the 
bosom of her dress." On another occasion: "The silence 
that fell again was broken by the hoot of the cuca. 'Some 
one must die/ shuddered Donna Catina." 

Owls have always been regarded as the familiars of 
witches, sometimes bearing them through the night on 
noiseless wings to some unholy tryst, sometimes con- 
tributing materials to their malignant, magic-brewing 
recipes. It was by meddling in such matters that the 


hero of that fine old romance, The Golden Ass of 
Apuleius, fell into his ridiculous and painful predicament. 
British poets, and especially the dramatists from 
Chatterton down, have taken advantage of the black re- 
pute of owls to enhance any scene of horror they want to 
depict, Ben Jonson's Masque of Queens furnished ex- 
cellent examples; and my friend J. E. Harting, 42 of 
London, has gathered into his admirable Ornithology of 
Shakespeare many owl-extracts from the great master's 
play. 'The owlet's wing," Mr. Harting finds, "was an 
ingredient in the cauldron wherein the witches prepared 
their 'charm of powerful trouble' (Macbeth, iv, i); 
and with the character assigned to it by the ancients, 
Shakespeare, no doubt, felt that the introduction of an 
owl in a dreadful scene of tragedy would help to make 
the scene come home more forcibly to the people who 
had from early times associated its presence with melan- 
choly, misfortune and death. ... Its doleful cry pierces 
the ear of Lady Macbeth while the murder is being done : 

Hark! Peace! 
It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman 
Which gives stern'st good-night. 

"And when the murderer rushes in immediately after- 
wards, exclaiming 'I have done the deed. Did thou not 
hear a noise?' she replies 'I have heard the owl scream.' 
And later on : The obscure bird clamored the live-long 
night!' . . . Should an owl appear at a birth, it is said 
to forebode ill luck to the infant. King Henry VI, ad- 
dressing Gloster, says: The owl shrieked at thy birth, 
an evil sign'; while upon another occasion its presence 
was supposed to predict a death or at least some dire mis- 
hap. . . . When Richard III is irritated by the ill news 


showered thick upon him, he interrupts the third mes- 
senger with 'Out on ye, Owls! Nothing but songs of 
death/ M 

It is not surprising on turning to the medieval phar- 
macopoeia, where there was quite as much magic as 
medicine, that the owl was of great potency in prescrip- 
tions. "Thus the feet of the bubo, burnt with hard 
plumbago, was held to be a help against serpents. If the 
heart of the bird was placed on the left breast of a sleep- 
ing beauty, it made her tell all her secrets: but the 
warrior who carried it was strengthened in battle/' A ! 
modern relic of this bit of superstitious therapeutics was 
found by me in The Long Hidden Frietid, a. little book 
printed at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1863, which was a 
crude translation by George Homan of a German book 
published at Reading, Penn., in 1819. It consists of a 
long series of remedies and magic arts to be followed, 
and which were actually in use in that region in cases of 
disease. Some of them introduced birds, one of which 
is reminiscent of the "sleeping beauty" mentioned a 
moment ago, and reads thus: "If you lay the heart and 
right foot of a barn-owl on one who is asleep, he will 
answer whatever you ask him, and tell what he has done." 
This should be known to our chiefs of police, whose de- 
tectives appear to be wasting much time in applying the 
extractive process called the Third Degree. 

The owl tribe, among the most innocent and service- 
able, in its relation to mankind, of avian groups, has been 
as outrageously slandered south of the Mediterranean as 
north of it. "The inhabitants of Tangier," as Colonel Irby 
tells us 81 in his book on the ornithology of Gibraltar, con- 
sider the barn-owls, numerous there, "the clairvoyant 
friends of the Devil." 


The Jews believe that their cry causes the death of 
young children; so, in order to prevent this, they pour 
a vessel of water out into the courtyard every time they 
hear the cry of one of these owls, the idea being that 
thus they will distract the bird's attention, and the 
infant will escape the intended malice. The Arabs be- 
lieve these owls can cause all kinds of evil to old as 
well as young, but they content themselves with cursing 
the bird whenever it is seen or heard. The Moham- 
medans say : "When these birds cry they are only curs- 
ing in their own language ; but their malediction is harm- 
less unless they know the name of the individual to 
whom they wish evil, or unless they have the malignity 
to point out that person when passing him. As the Devil 
sleeps but little when there is evil work to be done, he 
would infallibly execute the commands of his favorite, 
if one did not, by cursing him, thus guard against the 
power of that enemy." 

It is a pleasure to have this long record of misde- 
meanors and diabolism relieved by at least one good deed 
in history. Having read in Watters's 57 curious little 
volume that the Tartars attribute to the barn-owl the 
saving of the life of their great commander Genghis 
Khan, I searched far and wide for the particulars of what 
seemed likely to be an entertaining incident, and at last 
I came upon the facts in the eleventh volume of Purchase 
His Pilgrims. It appears that Changius Can, as the old 
historian spells it, had his horse shot under him in a 
certain fight that was going against him, and he ran and 
hid in a thicket of shrubs — which is a novel view of the 
"Tartar Terror." "Whither, when the enemies were 
returned, with purpose to spoil the dead Carkass, and to 
seek out such as were hidden, it happened that an Owle 


came and sate upon those little trees or shrubs which he 
had chose for his court, which when they had perceived 
they sought no further in that place, supposing that the 
said bird would not have sat there if any man had been 
hidden underneath. ,, 

A very similar legend in China accounts for the use of 
peacock plumes as insignia of rank and is related as fol- 
lows by Katherine M. Ball 68 : In the Chin dynasty a de- 
feated general took refuge in a forest where there were 
many peacocks. When the pursuing forces arrived, and 
found the fowl so quiet and undisturbed, they concluded 
that no one could possibly have come that way, and forth- 
with abandoned the search. The general — who later be- 
came the ancestor of five kings — was thus able to escape, 
and so grateful was he that later, when he came into 
power, he instituted the custom of conferring a peacock 
feather as an honor for the achievement of bravery in 

Japan has a similar mythical legend. 

Frenchmen call the common brown owl of Europe 
chouette; and when in 1793 disgruntled smugglers and 
Royalist soldiers were carrying on guerrilla warfare in 
Brittany and Poitu against the new order of things, they 
came to be called Chouans, "owls," from the signal-cries 
they made to one another in their nocturnal forays as 
appears so often in Balzac's novel The Chouans. 

Not much of this spookish and legendary lore seems 
to have been imported into the United States, or else it 
has disappeared, except that which still lingers among 
the superstitious negroes of the South. A writer in one 
of the early issues of The Cosmopolitan (magazine) re- 
lated that to the black folks of the Cotton Belt forty years 
or so ago the quavering "song" of our small mottled 


screech-owl spoke of coming death; but the birds were 
considered sensitive to countercharms put upon them 
from within the house over which they crooned their 
tremulous monologue. "Jest J am de shevel inter de fire, 
en time hit git red-hot dee '11 hesh dere shiverin' !" If 
you don't like that, sprinkle salt on the blaze, or turn a pair 
of shoes up on the floor with the soles against the wall. 
"Perhaps this faint semblance to a laid-out corpse will 
pacify the hungry spirit; the charm certainly, according 
to negro belief, will silence its harsh-voiced emissary." 

The darkies warn you that you must turn back on 
any journey you are making if a screech-owl cries above 
you. An old "hoot-owl," however, may foretell either 
good or bad fortune according as its three hoots are 
given on the right or left hand. This is an unfailing sign, 
and is especially heeded in 'coon or 'possum hunting, 
at night, when three hoots from the left will send any 
hunter home hopeless. 

All these indications and charms bear the familiar 
marks of the Old World fears and formulas, but it is 
surprising to meet them on the fields of Dixie-land. 

Owls were too well understood by our native redmen 
to be regarded with much superstition, and the smaller 
ones were well liked. Prince Maximilian mentions in 
his Travels (about 1836) that owls were kept in the 
lodges of the Mandans and Minnitarees, who lived in 
permanent villages in the upper Missouri Valley, and 
were regarded as "soothsayers," but I think they were no 
more than pets, as they are now in Zufii houses. Yet in 
the American Museum of Natural History in New York 
is a stuffed owl mounted on a stick, labeled as an object 
"worshipped" by the sorcerers among the Menominee 
Indians (eastern Wisconsin), "who believe they can 


assume the shape of an owl, and can in this disguise 
attack and kill their enemies" — that is, they try to make 
others believe so. The owl is chosen for their disguise, of 
course, because it typifies the sly, unseen method of attack 
in darkness with which they sought to terrify the people. 

Mr. Stuart Culin tells me that in Zufii owls, of which 
four kinds are recognized by names, are not considered 
sacred, and are killed for their feathers, which are used 
on ceremonial masks, and, once a year, to decorate long 
prayer-sticks. The people, he says, think that a certain big 
gray owl lives in a house like a man, and if any Indian 
goes to its house and the owl looks at him he will surely 
die. When the headmen go out at night for some cere- 
mony, and this owl is heard, it is a sign that rain will 
come very soon. This large owl and the small burrowing- 
owl are kept in houses as pets. Children are afraid of 
them, and they are utilized by parents to make the 
youngsters behave themselves. 

The Ashochimi, a mountain tribe of Californian 
Indians now extinct, as described by Powers, 19 feared 
certain hawks and owls, regarding them as malignant 
spirits which they must conciliate by offerings, and by 
wearing mantles of feathers, thus: 

When a great white owl alights near a village in the evening, 
and hoots loudly, the headman at once assembles all his warriors 
in council to determine whether Mr Strix demands a life or 
only money. ... If they incline to believe that he demands a 
life, someone in the village is doomed and will speedily die. 
But they generally vote that he can be placated by an offering, 
and immediately set out a quantity of shell-money and pinole, 
whereupon the valorous trenchermen fall to eat the pinole them- 
selves, and in the morning the headman decorates himself with 
owl-feathers, carries out the shell-money with solemn for- 
mality and flings it into the air under the tree where the owl 



A somewhat more spiritual view was taken by the 
Pimas of old times in the southwestern deserts. Their 
ideas of the destiny of the human soul varied, but one 
theory was that at death the soul passed into the body of 
an owl. "Should an owl happen to be hooting at the time 
of a death, it was believed that it was waiting for the 
soul. . . . Owl-feathers were always given to a dying 
person. They were kept in a long, rectangular box or 
basket of maguey leaf. If the family had no owl-feathers 
at hand they sent to the medicine-man who always kept 
them. If possible, the feathers were taken from a living 
bird when collected; the owl might then be set free or 
killed." 83 


WE are pretty sure to hear of the phenix every 
time a tailor or soap-maker announces that he 
will rebuild his shop after it has been burned; 
and its picture is a favorite with the advertising de- 
partment of fire-insurance companies. The world first 
learned of this remarkable fowl when Herodotus brought 
back to Greece his wonder-tales from Egypt, some 400 
years before Cleopatra made so much trouble by mixing 
love and politics. It will be well to quote in full the 
account by the great Greek traveller as it is found in the 
translation by Laurent: 

There is another sacred bird, called the "phenix," which I 
myself never saw except in a picture, for it seldom makes its 
appearance among the Egyptians — only every five-hundred 
years, according to the people of Heliopolis. They state that 
he comes on the death of his sire. If at all like his picture, 
this bird may be thus described in size and shape. Some of 
his feathers are of the color of gold; others are red. In out- 
line he is exceedingly similar to the eagle, and in size also. 
This bird is said to display an ingenuity which to me does not 
appear credible: he is represented as coming out of Arabia, 
and bringing with him his father to the temple of the Sun, 
embalmed in myrrh, and there burying him. The manner in 
which this is done is as follows: In the first place he sticks to- 
gether an egg of myrrh, as much as he can carry, and then 
tries if he can bear the burden. This experiment achieved, he 
accordingly scoops out the egg sufficiently to deposit his sire 
within. He next fills with fresh myrrh the opening in the egg 
by which the body was inclosed; thus the whole mass contain- 



ing the carcase is still of the same weight. Having thus com- 
pleted the embalming, he transports him into Egypt and to the 
temple of the Sun. (Euterpe, Book II.) 

Herodotus seems to have been most interested in the 
odorous embalming, quaintly referred to in a 17th- 
century song — 

Have you e'r smelt what Chymick Skill 
From Rose or Amber doth distill? 
Have you been near that Sacrifice 
The Phoenix makes before she dies? 

And it will be noticed that this observant reporter says 
nothing of the quality that has given the bird its present 
popularity as a type of recovery from disaster — its ability 
to "rise from its ashes," which, indeed, appears to have 
been a later conception. 

Greeks of that day probably accepted this story from 
Herodotus without much demur or criticism, for they 
had their own traditions of wonderful birds — the 
Stymphalids, for example. These were gigantic and 
terrible fowls that lived along the river Stymphalus, in 
northern Arcadia — a region of savage mountains that 
the Athenians knew little about. They were believed to 
be man-eating monsters with claws, wings, and beaks of 
brass, and feathers which they shot out like arrows. 
"Heracles scared them with a brazen rattle, and succeeded 
in killing part and in driving away the rest, which settled 
on the island of Artias in the Black Sea, to be frightened 
away after a hard fight by the Argonauts." So Seyfert 
summarizes their history; and an illustration on an an- 
tique vase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a 
flock of them looking much like pelicans. 

Pausanias visited the curious River Stymphalus and 


found it rising in a spring, flowing into a marsh, and then 
disappearing underground — a good setting for strange 
happenings, and he refers to the legend in his usual 
bantering way, thus: 

"There is a tradition that some man-eating birds lived on its 
banks, whom Hercules is said to have killed with his arrows. 
. . . The desert of Arabia has among other monsters some birds 
called Stymphalides, who are as savage to men as lions or 
leopards. They attack those who come to capture them, and 
wound them with their beaks and kill them. They pierce 
through coats of mail that men wear, and if they put on thick 
robes of mat the beaks of these birds penetrate them too. . . . 
Their size is about that of cranes and they are like storks, 
but their beaks are stronger and not crooked like those of storks. 
If there have been in all time these stymphalides like hawks and 
eagles, then they are probably of Arabian origin." 

The Greeks knew also of half-human Harpies, of web- 
footed Sirens, of the Birds of Seleucia, and of various 
other ornithological monstrosities, so that the tale of an 
Egyptian one was easily acceptable to their minds. The 
ugliest of the ugly flock were the Harpies, bird-women, 
on whom the ancients expended the direst pigments of 
their imagination, and whom Dante makes inhabitants of 
the gnarled and gloomy groves wherein suicides are con- 
demned to suffer in the nether world — 

There do the hideous Harpies make their nests 
Who chased the Trojans from the Strophades 
With sad announcement of impending doom; 
Broad wings have they, and necks and faces human, 
And feet with claws, and their great bellies fledged 
They make lament upon the wondrous trees. 

The Romans liked Herodotus and his story as well as 
they pleased the Greeks, and Pliny heard or invented 


additional particulars. He insists that only one phenix 
exists at a time, clothed in gorgeous feathers and carrying 
a plumed head ; and at the close of its long life it builds 
a nest of frankincense and cassia, on which it dies. 
From the corpse, as Pliny asserts, is generated a worm 
that develops into another phenix. This young phenix, 
when it has grown large enough, makes it its first duty to 
lay its father's body on the altar in Heliopolis; and 
Tacitus adds that its body is burned there. The implica- 
tion in most accounts is that the bird is male (the 
Egyptians are said to have believed all vultures female), 
and doubtless the whole conception is a primitive phase 
of the nature-worship out of which developed the more 
formal Osiris-legend. 

But the picture has many variants. One is that the 
phenix subsists on air for 500 years, at the end of which, 
lading its wings with perfumed gums gathered on Mt. 
Lebanon (!) it flies to Heliopolis and is burned — itself 
now, not its parent — into fragrant ashes on the altar of 
the Sun temple. On the next morning appears a young 
phenix already feathered, and on the third day, its pinions 
fully grown, it salutes the priest and flies away. Here 
we come to the best remembered feature of the mystery, 
caught and kept alive for us by the poets, such as John 
Lyly, 49 who in 1591 reminded the world that — 

There is a bird that builds its neast with spice, 
And built, the Sun to ashes doth her burne, 

Out of whose sinders doth another rise, 

And she by scorching beames to dust doth turne. 

De Kay 18 discourses on these notions in his Bird Gods: 

"In the oldest tombs, discovered lately on the upper Nile by 
Jacques de Morgan and others, the phenix is seen rising from 


a bed of flames, which may well mean the funeral pyre of the 
defunct. The inscriptions in question are so early that they 
belong to a period when the ceremonial of the mummy had not 
become universal in Egypt, and the conquerors of Egypt, prob- 
ably a swarm of metal-using foreigners from the valley of the 
Euphrates, who crossed from Arabia and the Red Sea, were 
still burning the bodies of their chiefs and kings. The phenix 
of these inscriptions may indicate the soul of the departed rising 
from its earthly dross as the soul of Herakles, according to the 
much later legend in its Greek form, rose from his funeral 
pyre to join the gods of Olympus." 

Now, whether or not the priests of Heliopolis en- 
couraged their worshippers to believe that such a creature 
really existed, they themselves knew well that it was a 
mere symbol of the sun; and it is easy to identify it with 
the bird "bennu" spoken of in the Book of the Dead and 
other Egyptian sacred texts, which unquestionably was 
a picturesque representative of the sun, rising, pursuing 
its course, and at regular intervals expiring in the fires of 
sunset, then renewing itself on the morrow in the flames 
of sunrise over Arabia. Plentiful evidence that this was 
perfectly understood in Greece and Italy of the classic 
age may be read in the works of their essayists and poets. 
Claudian (365-408), wrote, and Tickell, a British poet, 
translated into verse, a long poem on the phenix. 
Petrarch carried their wisdom onward when he declared 
there could be only one phenix at a time because there 
was only one sun. 

When the Arabs succeeded the Romans in the Nile 
Provinces they picked up from the people remnants of the 
legend, and confused it with their own ancient belief 
in a creature that resisted burning, by whose existence 
they accounted for the incombustible property of asbestos, 
a mineral known to them, but the origin of which was a 
mystery. It came from the Orient, and some said it was 


a vegetable product, others the hair of a rat-like animal: 
the western Arabs, however, mostly believed it to be the 
plumage of a bird, so that naturally they identified it with 
the fire-loving phenix. Arabian authors of the ioth cen- 
tury and onward describe this bird, under the Greek name 
"salamandra," as dwelling in India, where it lays its eggs 
and produces young in fire. Sashes, they say, are made 
of its feathers, and when one of them becomes soiled it 
is thrown on a fire, and comes out whole, but clean. 

This is an excellent example of the mingling of fact 
and fancy by which a student of these old matters is con- 
stantly perplexed. It is probable that small woven 
articles had long been known to the Arabs and Moors 
as Eastern curiosities, for the people of southern China 
since very ancient times had been collecting and preparing 
fibrous asbestos, and weaving it into fire-proof cloth. 
Such fabrics had, no doubt, a rough, fuzzy surface, not 
unlike fur or the down of birds, and might easily be sup- 
posed to be the latter. Hence the assertion that asbestos 
was the skin of a bird indestructible by fire, the identifica- 
tion of the phenix with the salamandra (as a bird — it had 
other legendary forms), and the trade-name "samand" 
given to asbestos cloth when the Arabs themselves began 
to manufacture and sell it. So our proverbial idea of the 
salamander goes back to a remote antiquity; but how it 
came to be represented among us as a newt instead of a 
bird belongs to another book. 

Meanwhile on the northern shore of the Mediterranean, 
where the legend of the phenix was popular, it had been 
introduced into Christianity as a symbol, as we know 
from memorial sculpture, and from the writings of St. 
Clement, who was the second pope after Peter. Its special 
meaning was immortality, which in that period meant the 



physical resurrection of the dead ; and the peacock came 
to be used in the same sense, as representing, if not 
virtually merged with, the phenix. The image in men's 
minds at that time appears to have been that of an eagle, 
a bird closely identified with the sun, clothed in the 
plumage of the peacock, another sun-bird (as representa- 
tive of the gorgeous clouds at sunset) ; and the very name 
confirms these solar associations, for our "phenix" is the 
Greek word phoinix, crimson red. How large a place the 
peacock in this aspect fills in the art and mythology of 
China and Japan appears in Chapter VII. 

Hulme informs us that Philippe de Thaum writes in 
his Bestiary of the mystic bird: "Know this is its lot; it 
comes to death of its own will, and from death it comes 
to life: hear what it signifies. Phoenix signifies Jesus, 
Son of Mary, that he had power to die of his own will, 
and from death come to life. Phoenix signifies that to 
save his people he chose to suffer upon the cross." "God 
knew men's unbelief," St. Cyril laments, "and therefore 
provided this bird as evidence of the Resurrection." St. 
Ambrose also declares that "the bird of Arabia teaches 
us, by its example, to believe in the Resurrection." Pas- 
sages of like tenor might be quoted from Tertullian and 
other expositors of the early Christian church, all show- 
ing the most unsuspicious faith in the real existence of 
such a bird. 

The symbolic connection of this fabulous creature with 
the idea of immortality may have been an inheritance 
from Jewish traditions. According to the Talmud Eve, 
after eating the terrible fruit in the Garden of Eden, 
tried to force it, and its consequences, on all the animals, 
but the bird "chol" (the phenix) would not eat, but flew 
away from temptation, and thus preserved its original 


gift of perpetual life. "And now the phenix . . . lives a 
thousand years, then shrivels up till it is the size of an 
tgg, and then from himself emerges beautiful again." 
In the Middle Ages this deathless bird was supposed to 
inhabit the sacred garden of the Earthly Paradise. 

Peacocks carved on early Christian sarcophagi are 
perched on a palm tree (the conventional sign of martyr- 
dom in primitive Christian iconography), and hence elo- 
quent of that rapturous belief in immortality character- 
istic of the catacombs, as Mrs. Jenner expresses it. Repre- 
sentations of the bird rising from a flaming nest and 
ascending toward the sun are less common, but do occur 
in medieval heraldry, by which pictorial path, it is prob- 
able, the notion has come down to our own day and be- 
come the cognizance of one of the oldest American in- 
surance companies. 

The association with the palm mentioned above re- 
calls another line of legendry, for some etymologists say 
that the name "phenix" should be so written (not 
phoenix), and that it is the older name of the date-palm. 
This tree was regarded in ancient Egypt as the emblem 
of triumph, whence, perhaps, our modern symbolic use 
of its fronds; and Pliny was informed that "in Arabia 
the phenix nested only on a palm," and that "the said 
bird died with the tree and revived of itself as the tree 
sprang again." 

Now, Arabic authors of the Middle Ages had much 
to say of a mythical bird, "anka," that lived 1700 years; 
and they explained that when a young anka grows up if it 
be a female the old female burns herself, and if it be a male 
the old male does so. This is very phenix-like, but the anka 
is distinguished by huge size, the Arabic writer Kazweenee, 
as quoted by Payne," describing the anka as the greatest 


of birds. "It carries off the elephant," he says, "as the 
cat carries off the mouse" ; and he relates that in conse- 
quence of its kidnapping a bride God, at the prayer of the 
prophet Handhallah, "banished it to an island in the cir- 
cumambient ocean unvisited by men under the equinoctial 

I find in Miss Costello's Rose Garden of Persia 88 some 
interesting notes quoted from M. Garcin de Tassy, rela- 
tive to the anka, which, De Tassy says, has become a 
proverbial symbol in Persia for something spoken of 
but not seen — and not likely to be ! Here he seems to be 
using the Arabic name for the bird the Persians call 
"simurgh," the signification of which, as Professor 
A. V. W. Jackson tells me, is "the mythical," and which 
is derived from the avestan word for "eagle" — another 
link in our chain. De Tassy explains: 

It [the anka] is known only by name, and is so called from 
having a white line round the neck like a collar; some say be- 
cause of the length of the neck. ... It is said that the inhabi- 
tants of the city of Res. . . . had in their country a mountain 
called Demaj, a mile high. There came a very large bird with 
a very long neck, of beautiful and divers colors. This bird was 
accustomed to pounce on all the birds of that mountain, and 
eat them up. One day he was hungry and birds were scarce, 
so he pounced on a child and carried it off. He is called anka- 
mogreb because he carries off the prey he seizes. . . . Soon 
after this he was struck by a thunderbolt. 

Mohammed is reported to have said that at the time of 
Moses God created a female bird called anka; it had eight 
wings like the seraphs, and bore the figure of a man. God gave 
it a portion of every thing, and afterwards created it a male. 
Then God made a revelation to Moses that he had created two 
extraordinary birds, and had assigned for their nourishment 
the wHd beasts around Jerusalem. But the species multiplied, 
and when Moses was dead they went to the land of Nejd and 
Hijaz, and never ceased to devour the wild beasts and to carry 
off children till the time when Khaled, son of Senan Abasi, 


was Prophet, between the time of Christ and Mohammed. It 
was then that these birds were complained of. Khaled in- 
voked God, and God did not permit them to multiply, and their 
race became extinct. 

This characteristic Bedouin camp-fire novelette re- 
minds us at once of the famous roc, or "rukh," to adopt 
the more correct spelling, with which we are familiar 
from the story in the Arabian Nights of Sinbad the 
Sailor. Let me quote it succinctly from Payne's edition. 87 
Sinbad had sailed on a commercial venture from his 
home in Basra, a port on the Persian Gulf, and the ship 
had stopped at a very pleasant island, situation un- 
recorded. Sinbad went ashore with others, wandered in 
the lovely woods, fell asleep, and awoke to find the ship 
gone and himself the only person on the island. As he 
was exploring the place rather timidly he came to a great 
shining dome, but could see no doorway. "As I stood," 
he relates, "casting about how to gain an entrance, the 
sun was suddenly hidden from me and the air became 
dark. . . » 

So I marvelled at this, and lifting my head looked steadfastly 
at the sun, when I saw that what I had taken for a cloud was 
none other than an enormous bird whose outspread wings, as it 
flew through the air, obscured the sun and veiled it from the 
island. At this sight my wonder redoubled, and I bethought 
me of a story I had heard aforetime of pilgrims and travellers, 
how in certain islands dwells a huge bird, called the roc, which 
feeds its young on elephants, and was assured that the dome 
aforesaid was none other than one of its eggs. As I looked 
. . . the bird alighted on the egg and brooded over it, with its 
wings covering it and its legs spread out behind it on the ground, 
and in this posture it fell asleep, glory be to Him who sleepeth 

When I saw this I arose, and unwinding the linen of my tur- 
ban twisted it into a rope with which I girt my middle, and 
bound myself fast to his feet. 


SinbacTs purpose was to get himself carried away to 
some better place, but when, next morning, the roc did 
bear him aloft and afar, and finally alighted, the sailor 
found himself in a horrid desert. After many further 
adventures and voyages Sinbad revisits his island yet 
does not recognize it until the men with whom he is stroll- 
ing bade him look at a great dome. Not knowing what 
it was they broke it open with stones, ''whereupon much 
water ran out of it, and the young roc appeared within; 
so they pulled it forth of the shell and killed it, and took 
of it great store of meat." Dreadful misfortune fol- 
lowed this inconsiderate act. 

This was a well-known Arabic wonder-tale. The au- 
thor of one of their popular old books of "marvels," 
several of which exist, tells almost exactly Sinbad's story 
as happening to himself, and at least two other Arabic 
works are said to contain the tale with picturesque varia- 
tions. In later times the home of the monster was 
placed in Madagascar. Marco Polo, the adventurous 
Italian, who in the 13th century wandered overland to 
China, and whose Travels 89 are a fine mixture of fact 
and fancy, had a fair idea of where Madagascar was, and 
recorded much that he was told about it — mostly errone- 
ous. He relates that the people of that island report 
"That at a certain season of the year . . . the rukh 
makes its appearance from the southern region. . . . 
Persons who have seen this bird assert that when the 
wings are spread they measure sixteen paces in extent." 
Marco says that he heard that the agents of the Grand 
Khan took to him a feather ninety spans long. It is ex- 
plained in Yule's edition of Polo's Travels that the sup- 
posed roc's feather was one of the gigantic fronds of the 
raphia palm "very like a quill in form." 


Such wonder-tales have a truly phenixlike quality of 
indestructibility. As late as the time of Charles I of Eng- 
land there lived in Lambeth, on the Surrey side of 
London, John Tradescant, renowned as traveller and 
florist, who accumulated an extensive "physic-garden" 
and museum of antiquities and curiosities. He was a 
man of science, but to satisfy the popular taste of the 
time, as Pennant explains, his museum contained a feather 
alleged to be of the dragon, and another of the griffin. 
"You might have found here two feathers of the tail 
of the phoenix, and the claw of the rukh, a bird capable 
to trusse an elephant." This collection after the death of 
Tradescant's son in 1622, became the property of Elias 
Ashmole, and it was the nucleus of the Ashmolean 
Museum founded at Oxford in 1682. 

But phenix, rukh, anka, simurgh, garuda, feng-huang 
and others that have not been mentioned, such as Yel, the 
mythical raven of our Northwest, and those of Malaya 
described by Skeat, 7 are all, apparently, members of the 
brood hatched ages ago in that same sunrise nest and 
still flying amid rosy clouds of prehistoric fable. 

The first glimpse of them is on the seals and tablets 
recovered from Mesopotamian ruin-mounds. In the 
mystic antiquity of the Summerian kingdom of Ur and 
its capital-city Lagash, a gigantic eagle, "the divine bird 
Imgig" was the royal cognizance. In those days, as Dr. 
Ward 23 discloses from his study of the oldest Babylonian 
cylinders, people told one another tales of monstrous and 
fantastic birds of prey that could fly away with an ante- 
lope in each talon, and which fought, usually victoriously, 
against huge winged and feathered dragons with bodies 
like those of crocodiles, and sometimes with human heads. 


Such representations of demons were the prototypes of 
the grotesque combinations of animal features, and of 
men and animals, more familiar to us in the Egyptian 
Sphinx, the classic centaurs, and medieval angels and 

When the elders in Babylon expounded the reason for 
faith in these antagonistic supernatural creatures, they 
explained that the "divine" eagle symbolized beneficence 
and protective power in the universe, while the feathered 
monsters stood for the baffling forces of malignancy and 
harm. In this philosophy, probably, is the underlying re- 
lationship that connects all this Oriental flock of fabulous 
fowls — visionary flight-beings in varying forms and 
phases that seek to portray the powers of the air, mys- 
terious, uncontrollable, overwhelming, capable of all the 
mind of primitive man could conceive or his gods per- 
form. All of them became endowed in time with the 
luxuriant colorings of Eastern poetry and fiction, and 
appear now heroic and picturesque, as one expects of 
everything in the dreamy Orient of tradition. 

In the cold and stormy North, however, where the 
sun is a source of comfort rather than of terror, and 
movements of the atmosphere are more often feared 
than blessed, the similar conception of a gigantic skybird 
is far more definite. When the native of the Russian 
plains, struggling homeward against driving snow, hears 
the shrilling and howling of the tempest he knows Vikhar, 
the Wind-Demon, is abroad. Norsemen represent him 
as Hraesvelg, the North Wind, an eagle: he does not 
"ride on the wings of the wind," he is the wind, and the 
blast from the arctic sea that beats upon your face is the 
air set in motion by the wings of this colossal, invisible 


bird flying southward. That it is big enough to stir the 
atmosphere into a veritable hurricane is plain: 

From the East came flying hither, 
From the East a monstrous eagle, 
One wing touched the vault of heaven, 
While the other swept the ocean; 
With his tail upon the waters, 
Reached his beak beyond the cloudlets. 

And such an eagle as this one, described as a reality in 
the Kalevala, the legendary epic of the Finns, possessing 
beak and talons of copper, once seized and bore away a 
maiden to its eyrie, thus showing itself true to the "form" 
of the East whence it came. 

Most of our North American Indians typified the 
winds, especially those from the north, as birds, and many 
tribes identified the storm-bringing ones with their 
thunder-birds, which was very natural. The Algonkins 
believed that certain birds produced the phenomena of 
wind and created waterspouts, and that the clouds were 
the spreading and agitation of their gigantic wings. The 
Navahos thought that a great white swan sat at each of the 
four points of the compass and conjured up the blasts 
that came therefrom, while the Dakotas believed that in 
the west is the residence of the Wakinyjan, "the Flyers/' 
that is, the breezes that develop into occasional storms. 

It was in the Orient, however, where, by the way, 
both simurgh and garuda serve as storm-bringers in 
several myths, that the conception of gigantic bird-beings 
was expanded and elaborated with the picturesque details 
that have been suggested in an earlier paragraph. 

A very old Persian tale, with many fanciful embroider- 
ings, runs as follows: There are, or were, two trees— 


one the Tree of Life, and the other the Tree Opposed to 
All Harm, the tree that bears the seeds of all useful 
things; which is like the two trees in the Garden of 
Eden, over in Babylon. In the latter tree sits and nests 
the chief of all the mythic birds, the simurgh (called in the 
Avesta "saena-meregha" ) , which is said to suckle its 
young, and to be three natures "like a bat." "Whenever 
he arises aloft a thousand twigs will shoot out from that 
tree, and when he alights he breaks off the thousand twigs 
and bites the seeds from them. And the bird cinamros 
[second only to the simurgh] alights likewise in that 
vicinity ; and his work is this, that he collects those seeds 
that are bitten from the tree of many seeds, which is 
opposed to harm, and he scatters them where Tishtar 
[angel that provides rain] seizes the water [from the 
demons of drought] ; so that, while Tishtar shall seize the 
water, together with those seeds of all kinds, he shall 
rain them on the world with the rain." Such is the lan- 
guage of the sacred books. 26 

The simurgh figures in Firdausi's 93 legendary epic as 
the foster-parent of Zal, father of Rustam, the national 
hero of Persia. When Rudabah's flank was opened to 
bring forth Rustam her wound was healed by rubbing it 
with a simurgh's feather. Rustam himself, once wounded 
unto death, was cured in the same manner, and other 
cases are recorded in great variety. Firdausi explains 
that the simurgh had its nest on Mt. Elburz, on a peak 
that touched the sky in a place no man had ever seen; 
and that it was to that eyrie that it carried the princely 
baby Zal, whence it was recovered by its parents. In 
the ancient Avestan ritual it is stated of the vulture 
varengana: "If a man holds a bone of that strong bird 
... or a feather, no one can smite or turn to flight that 


fortunate man. The feather of that bird brings him 
help . . . maintains him in his glory." According to 
De Kay 18 the simurgh was a "god-like bird that discussed 
predestination with Solomon, as the eagle of Givernberg 
held dialogues with King Arthur. . . . The simurgh was 
a prophet." 

But of all the fabulous birds that infest ancient Persian 
mythology none is held so important as the falcon-like 
"karshipta," which brought the sacred law into the 
Paradise of Jamshid. "Regarding the karshipta they 
say that it knew how to speak words, and brought the 
religion to the enclosure which Yim made, and circulated 
it: there they utter the Avesta in the language of birds." 

We read also of a gigantic bird in Iran, the "kamar," 
"which overshadowed the earth and kept off the rain till 
the rivers dried up." 

In the Hindu mythology Vishnu is the sun-god, while 
Indra represents the lightning and storm, and the two are 
in general opposites, rivals, enemies. Vishnu rides on an 
eagle of supernatural size and power called garuda. In 
the Pahlavi translation of the stories the simurgh takes 
the place of the eagle, for their characters as well as their 
names are interchangeable. Garuda was born from an 
egg laid by Vinata, herself the daughter of a hawk and 
the mother of the two immense vultures that in Persian 
myths guard the gates of hell, and elsewhere figure boldly 
in Oriental fables ; it is a mortal enemy, now of the ser- 
pent and now of the elephant, and now of the tortoise — 
all three connected with Indra. This bird carries into 
the air an elephant and a tortoise in order to devour 
them, and in one of the various accounts leaves them on 
a mountain-top as did the simurgh and the rukh their 
iniquitous "liftings." 


Garuda also appears in Japanese legendary art as gario, 
or binga, or bingacho, or karobinga, half woman, half 
bird, a sort of winged and feathered angel with a tail like 
a phenix and legs like a crane. This reminds us of the 
harpies of Greece. The Malays recognize the image, and 
when a cloud obscures the sun Perak men will say: 
"Gerda is spreading his wings to dry." 

The Chinese, and after them the Japanese, had a 
phenix-like bird in their mythical aviary, which persists 
in the faith of the more simple-minded of their peoples, 
and as a fruitful motive in the decorative art of each. 
It was one of the four supernatural creatures that in 
ancient Chinese philosophy symbolized the four quarters 
of the heavens. The Taoists, whose religious ideas are 
older than Confucianism and prevailed especially among 
the humble and unlearned, called it the Scarlet Bird, and 
associated it with the element Fire, and with their mys- 
tic number 7. Archaic pictures show a crested bird with 
long tail-feathers — a figure that might well be meant for 
a peacock. The creature itself is said not to have been 
seen by mortal eyes since the time of Confucius, but it 
has by no means been forgotten, for it is the fung- 
whang, or feng-huang (which is the names of the male 
and the female of the species conjoined) ; and it lives 
even now on embroidered screens and painted vases, or 
proudly distinguishes royal robes, from the Thibetan 
mountains to the Yellow Sea. 

A recent writer on Eastern art 68 describes the proper 
fung as a gorgeously colored bird with a long tail. Its 
feathers are red, azure, yellow, white, and black, the five 
colors belonging to the five principal virtues; and the 
Chinese ideograms for uprightness, humanity, virtue, 
honesty, and sincerity, are impressed on various parts of 


its body. Its cries are symbolic, its appearance precedes 
the advent of virtuous rulers. As in the other cases 
this bird carries something away — this time an eminent 
philosopher, Baik-fu, was translated. In Japan the 
peasantry, at least, still hold to the reality of the same 
bird under the name ho-ho, and artists and symbolists 
have beautifully utilized the conception. 90 The belief 
is that the sun descends to earth from time to time in the 
form of the ho-ho, as a messenger of love, peace, and 
goodwill, and rests on one or another of the torii. It 
appears to have become a badge of imperial rank in 
China before the time of the Ming dynasty, and, in 
Japan it became the symbol of the empress, and in old 
times, as we are told, only empresses and royal princesses 
could have its likeness woven into their dress-goods. 

It will be noticed that this last-considered member of 
our fabulous flock, the fung-whang or ho-ho, is the 
only one not of gigantic size or distorted or terrifying 
aspect. This indicates to me its comparatively recent 
origin, and its beneficent disposition shows that it is the 
creation of men accustomed to peace under kindly skies. 
It is an interesting fact that when the Mongolian felt 
called upon to portray demoniac beings he exaggerated to 
the extent of his ability human expressions of rage, 
villainy and ferocity, instead of using for his purpose 
animals of Titanic size, or in horrifying combinations, 
as did magicians south of the great mountains. 

The explanation seems not far away. The territory 
that apparently always has been the home of the homo- 
geneous "yellow" race is essentially a vast plain extend- 
ing from the mountains of central Asia westward to the 
Pacific and meridianally from southern China to the 
border of Kamptchatka. It includes the spacious valleys 


of China, proper, the plains and deserts of Mongolia, 
and the broad prairies that stretch across Manchuria, 
making together the widest area of fairly level and till- 
able land on the globe. Much of it was never forested, 
and from a large part of the remainder the scanty growth 
of woods had been cleared before written history began. 
The climate as a whole is temperate and equable, and 
rarely disturbed by startling and destructive meteoro- 
logical phenomena. Furthermore, except the tigers of 
the jungly southeastern border, no dangerous animals are 
to be feared or to be idealized into mythical things of 
terror. Two evils of nature remain to disturb the in- 
habitants of this favored region — annual spring-floods, 
often fatally widespread; and, second, frequent earth- 
quakes. The floods are perfectly understood in their 
cause as well as in their effects, and afford little material 
for superstition. As for the earthquakes, the people long 
ago found a sufficient explanation in the invention of a 
burrowing beast of prodigious size and strength, which 
they called an "earth-dragon," and whose movements as 
it stirs about heaves the ground beneath our feet. The 
wave-like character of the earth-shocks showed that the 
dragon must be elongated and reptile-like; and now and 
then a landslide or diggings disclosed long and massive 
bones that evidently were those of these subterranean 
monsters, although foreigners said they were fossil re- 
mains of Mesozoic reptiles or something else. The whole 
idea, in fact, is so plausible and logical, that it really be- 
longs to scientific hypothesis rather than to mythology. 

The reaction of this tranquil geographical situation and 
history has been to produce, or mould, a people gentle, 
self-contained and averse to strife. This is not par- 
ticularly to their credit or their discredit. It is as natural 


for a race developed in the valley of the Hoang Ho to be 
peaceable as for one bred along the Danube or the St. 
Lawrence to be belligerent. 

In such an unterrifying situation as his the Mongolian 
felt no impulse to coin the manifestations of nature, 
elemental or animated, into malignant demons, but rather 
impersonated them, if at all, as beings with kindly in- 
tentions and of beautiful form. That such impersona- 
tions are few, and that Chinese mythology furnishes a 
comparatively small contribution to the world's store of 
specimens of that primitive stage in human mentality, is, 
I think, another evidence of the equable physical en- 
vironment in which the people of the Flowery Kingdom 
have been nurtured, which, while it contributed to their 
sanity, did little to stimulate their imaginations. 

On the other hand, men and women who endured, 
day by day, the blistering heat and drouth of the desert; 
or who knew the awe-inspiring mountains, where gloomy 
glens alternate with cloud-veiled heights, the thunders of 
unseen avalanches shock the ear, and appalling fires that 
no man kindles rage against the snows ; or who night and 
day must guard his or her life in the jungle against lurk- 
ing perils from tooth and claw and poison-fang — such 
persons were aroused to mental as well as physical alert- 
ness for safety's sake, and saw in almost every circum- 
stance of their lives visions of unearthly power. Unable 
in their narrow, slowly developing knowledge and meagre 
intellection, to comprehend much of what confronted 
them, yet understanding some small sources and agencies 
of power, what more natural than that they should picture 
the often tremendous exhibitions of nature's force as the 
product of enormously greater powers. Hence not only 
the bigness attributed to the mythical birds we have 


sketched but their supernatural abilities, and also — in ac- 
cordance with constant experience of the general antago- 
nism between nature and human purposes — the malig- 
nancy characterizing most of them. 

For, as has been said, Garuda, Simurgh, Phenix, 
Fung- Whang and all the others are only visions woven 
out of the sunshine, the clouds and the winds, in the loom 
of primitive imagination. It is quite a waste of time, 
therefore, to try as some have done (notably Professor 
Newton 55 ) to connect any one of them with some living 
or extinct reality, as, for example, the Rukh with the 
epiornis or any other of the big extinct ratite birds of 
Madagascar. Eagles and vultures and peacocks have 
served as suggestions for fantastic creations of a vagrant 
fancy, and that is all the reality they ever had. We do 
not know, probably never can know, the ultimate source 
of these stories and images, so varied yet so alike; nor 
whether all have spread from one source, or have in some 
instances arisen independently, as would seem probable in 
the case of those told about American aboriginal camp- 
fires ; but we may be sure that their conception was in the 
morning of civilization (more likely far back of that) as 
products of the uncultured, nature-fearing, marvel-loving 
fancy of prehistoric mankind. 



THE pagans of primitive times along the shores of 
the Mediterranean believed in personal gods and 
their guidance in human affairs. With the ap- 
proval of these gods, or of that departmental god or 
goddess having charge of the matter in mind, one's pro- 
ject would prosper, whereas their disapproval meant 
failure and very likely some punishment under divine 
wrath. The human difficulty was to learn the will of said 

Equally well settled was the doctrine that birds — which 
seemed to belong to the celestial spaces overhead where 
the gods lived and manifested their variable moods, now 
in sunshine and zephyr, now by storm-clouds, and rainfall 
— were inspired messengers of the gods, and required 
reverent attention. This, however, did but throw the 
difficulty one step further back, for how could human in- 
telligence comprehend the messages birds were constantly 
bringing ? 

At any rate the principal and most numerous omens 
in the pre-Christian centuries were drawn from birds; 
and this kind of divination gained so much credit that 
other kinds were little regarded. It was based, as has 
been indicated, on the theory that these creatures, by 
their actions, wittingly or unwittingly, conveyed the will 
of the gods. This super-avian attribute was by no means 



confined to the prominent raven and crow, whose pro- 
phetic qualities have been portrayed in another chapter, 
for various birds came to be considered "fortunate" or 
"unfortunate," from the point of view of the seeker after 
supernal guidance, either on account of their own 
characteristics or according to the place and manner of 
their appearance; hence the same species might, at dif- 
ferent times, foretell contrary events. Let me quote here 
a succinct statement from The Encyclopedia Londonensis, 
published in the early part of the 18th century: 

If a flock of various birds came flying about any man it was 
an excellent omen. The eagle was particularly observed for 
drawing omens; when it was observed to be brisk and lively, 
and especially if, during its sportiveness, it flew from the right 
hand to the left, it was one of the best omens that the gods 
could give. Respecting vultures there are different opinions, 
both among the Greek and the Roman authors; by some they 
are represented as birds of lucky omen, while Aristotle and 
Pliny reckon them among the unlucky birds. If the hawk was 
seen seizing and devouring her prey, it portended death; but if 
the prey escaped deliverance from danger was portended. 
Swallows wherever and under whatever circumstances they 
were seen were unlucky birds ; before the defeat of Pyrrhus and 
Antony they appeared on the tent of the former and the ship 
of the latter; and, by dispiriting their minds, probably pre- 
pared the way for their subsequent disasters. In every part of 
Greece except Athens, owls were regarded as unlucky birds; 
but at Athens, being sacred to Minerva, they were looked upon 
as omens of victory and success. The swan, being an omen 
of fair weather, was deemed a lucky bird by mariners. 

The most inauspicious omens were given by ravens, but the 
degree of misfortune which they were supposed to portend 
depended, in some measure, in their appearing on the right 
hand or the left; if they came croaking on the right hand it 
was a tolerably good omen; but if on the left a very bad one. 
. . . The crow appearing [at a wedding] denoted long life to 
the married pair, if it appeared with its mate ; but if it was seen 
single separation and sorrow were portended. Whence it was 


customary at nuptials for the maids to watch that none of these 
birds coming singly should disturb the solemnity. 

It was hardly to be expected that the comprehension 
of all this science of soothsaying should belong to 
ordinary mortals; and therefore there arose early in its 
development certain clever ''wise men" who declared 
themselves endowed with magical power to understand 
the language of birds, and to interpret both their chatter 
and their actions. Thus originated the profession of 
augury, a word that spells "bird-talk" in its root-meaning, 
with its later product auspices, or "bird-viewers." The 
augur originally was a priest (or a magician, if you prefer 
that term) who listened to what the birds said; and the 
auspex was another who watched what they did, or 
examined their entrails to observe anything abnormal that 
he might construe as an answer to prayer, or interpreted 
something else in the nature of an omen from this or that 
divinity, or from all the gods together. 

I need not describe the elaborate rites and ceremonies 
that came to be associated with the practice of this kind 
of divination (ornithomancy), especially under the 
revered and powerful College of Augurs that practically 
ruled the Roman Republic, even in the Augustan age, for 
it will suffice to direct attention to a few features. 

Birds were distinguished by the Roman augurs as 
oscines or alites, "talkers" and "flyers." The oscines were 
birds that gave signs by their cry as well as by flight, such 
as ravens, owls and crows. The alites included birds like 
eagles and vultures, which gave signs by their manner of 
flying. The quarter of the heavens in which they ap- 
peared, and their position relative to that of the observer, 
were most important factors in determining the sig- 


nificance of the supposed message, as has been extensively 
explained in an earlier chapter of this book. 

This science or business of bird-divination, for it was 
both, was of prehistoric antiquity. Plutarch 94 records 
that Romulus and Remus, the fabled founders of the 
Latin race began their eventful life under a wild fig-tree, 
where a she-wolf nursed them, and a woodpecker con- 
stantly fed and watched over them. 'These creatures, ,, 
Plutarch remarks, "are esteemed holy to the god Mars — 
the woodpecker the Latins still especially worship and 
honor. Romulus became skilled in divination, and first 
carried the lituits, or diviner's staff, a crooked rod with 
which soothsayers indicated the quarters of the heavens 
when observing the flight of birds." 

Among the Romans not a bird 
Without a prophecy was heard. 
Fortunes of empire often hung 
On the magician magpie's tongue, 
And every crow was to the state 
A sure interpreter of fate. — Churchill. 

The peculiar province of the auspices, or bird-in- 
specters, was to seek the will of the gods as to some con- 
templated act or policy by watching the behavior of 
the sacred chickens, cared for by an official called 
pullarius. "If the chickens came too slowly out of the 
cage, or would not feed, it was a bad omen; but if they 
fed greedily, so that some part of their food fell and 
struck the ground, it was deemed an excellent omen." — 
and so forth and so forth. 

It is rather engaging to inquire why the humble barn- 
yard fowl was used for so momentous a function. 
Partly, no doubt, because it was the most convenient kind 
of bird to keep and propagate in captivity, and therefore 


would always be at hand when wanted (and in case the 
prophecy-demand was light an occasional pullet for the 
official pot would not be missed!), but also because its 
witlessness made it dependable. A devotee of this way of 
omen-catching would explain that of course the bird was 
unconscious of the part it played; that its mind was a 
mere receptacle of divine impulses to act in a certain way, 
the significance of which the auspex understood and re- 
ported. If that theory is true, it follows that the more 
empty-headed the "medium" is the better, for it would 
then have fewer ideas of its own to short-circuit the in- 
spired impulses. This view has, in fact, influenced ignor- 
ant folks everywhere in their conclusion that men who 
were witless, or crazy, or had lost their mentality in a 
trance, were "possessed," mostly by devils but sometimes 
by good "spirits" which had found a mind "swept and 
garnished," as St. Luke said, and had become vocal 
tenants ; whence, it was argued, no human rationality in- 
terfered with the transmission of the message, and men 
must accept what the tongues uttered as inspired words. 
"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings came forth 
praise" that was praise indeed, because the infants knew 
not what they said. That was the reason Balaam listened 
with so much respect to the warning spoken by his ass; 
and many a preaching ass since has had a similar reward 
for articulate braying. 

One more consideration suggests itself. The ominous 
flock kept by the pullarius contained both cocks and hens ; 
and the cock, as a bird of the sun, has been "sacred" from 
prehistoric antiquity in that primitive nature-worship 
from which the Greco-Romans were by no means free. 
"It is not improbable," we are assured by Houghton 9B 
"that the sacrificial rites and consultation by augury, in 


which cooks figured among the Romans, came originally 
from Babylonia ... I think that the figure [in a seal] of 
a cock perched on an altar before a priest making his of- 
ferings . . . represents the bird in this capacity as a sooth- 
sayer." In fact, a whole department of the science of 
augury was known as alectromancy, in which a barnyard 
cock was the agent or medium of inspiration. 

These practices — which were entirely void of morality 
— are a curious index of the mental barbarism of the early 
Greeks and Romans, for they are quite on a level with 
the ideas and doings of savages now. 

With the advance in knowledge and enlightenment cul- 
minating in the philosophy of Cicero and his skeptical 
contemporaries, both faith and practice in this childish 
consultation of chickens and crows disappeared, or de- 
scended to be merely a political sop for the credulous 
populace. Even this passed away when superstitious 
paganism faded out of the religion of mankind in Europe, 
or, more exactly, it became changed into a faith in weather 
prophecy by noticing the behavior of birds and other 
animals ; but these prognostications are based not on a sup- 
posed message from the gods but on deductions from ob- 
servation and experience. Let us see how far this 
modern method of augury is of service as a sort of home- 
made Weather Bureau — we will, as it were, study the 
genesis of the Rain-bird. It began early. Aristophanes 
tells us, of the Greeks: 

From birds in sailing men instruction take 
Now lie in port, now sail, and profit make. 

The proprietor of Gardiner's Island, at the eastern end 
of Long Island, New York, where fish-hawks then 
abounded, and always since have been under protection, 


told Alexander Wilson 46 many facts of interest respect- 
ing their habits, among others the following: 

They are sometimes seen high in the air, sailing and cutting 
strange gambols, with loud vociferations, darting down several 
hundred feet perpendicularly, frequently with part of a fish in 
one claw, which they seem proud of, and to claim "high hook," as 
the fishermen call him who takes the greatest number. On these 
occasions they serve as a barometer to foretell the changes of 
the atmosphere; for when the fish-hawks are thus sailing high 
in air, in circles, it is universally believed to prognosticate a 
change of weather, often a thunder-storm in a few hours. On 
the faith of the certainty of these signs the experienced coaster 
wisely prepares for the expected storm, and is rarely mistaken. 

It would be hard to find a better epitome of the "signs" 
given by birds to the weather-prophet. Similar behavior 
in sea-gulls is interpreted in the same way: but in most 
cases high flight is said to denote continuance of fine 
weather, and in general there is good sense in that view, 
because, as a rule, bad weather descends upon us from 
the higher strata of the atmosphere, and birds up there 
would be the first to feel its approach. Hence the joyous 
greeting, "Everything is lovely and the goose honks 
(not 'hangs') high." Sailors have a rhyme — 

When men-of-war-hawks fly high, 't is a sign of clear sky; 
When they fly low prepare for a blow. 

This point is made in particular in respect to swallows 
of various kinds, which are regarded in most countries as 
presaging rain when they all go skimming along close to 
the ground; but it was pure fancy that expanded this 
warning into the senseless couplet 

When the swallow buildeth low 
You can safely reap and sow. 


That is, I suppose, the season will then furnish rain 
enough for a good crop. The same thing is sung of 
swans. But even the swallows cannot be depended on as 
indicators, for in late summer and autumn they are more 
likely to skim along the ground and over ponds than to 
go anywhere else; and, as showing the uncertainty in 
men's minds in this matter, or else how signs change with 
locality, it may be mentioned that in Argentina swallows 
are held to indicate coming storms not by low but by ele- 
vated flight. Thus the naturalist Hudson ** writes of the 
musical martin (Progne), familiar about Buenos Ay res: 
"It is ... . the naturalist's barometer, as whenever, the 
atmosphere being clear and dry, the progne perches on 
the weathercock or lightning-rod, on the highest points of 
the house-top, or on the topmost twig of some lofty tree, 
chanting its incantation, cloudy weather and rain will 
surely follow within twenty-four hours.'' 

None of the host of sayings, of which you may read 
hundreds in the publications of the United States Weather 
Service, and in such collections of odd lore as Gleanings 
for the Curious* 6 that pretend to foretell the character of 
a whole season from what birds do, are worth credence. 
For example, some declare that "a dry summer will fol- 
low when birds build their nests in exposed places," on 
the theory, I suppose, that the builders will have no fear 
of getting wet; and 

If birds in the autumn grow tame, 
The winter will be cold for game. 

One important exception to this kind of nonsense may 
be made, however, for in certain circumstances it is fair 
to accept from our American birds a broad hint as to the 
character of the approaching winter. Experience con- 


vinces us that an unusually early arrival of migratory 
birds from the north indicates an extra cold winter to fol- 
low. Several northwestern sayings about ducks and geese 
tell us that whenever they leave Lake Superior noticeably 
earlier than is their wont; or fly southward straight and 
fast, not lingering near accustomed halting-places, then 
a severe season is to be anticipated. In the sum this is 
logical, for this reason: 

Birds whose home is in the far North — and several 
species go to the extreme limit of arctic lands to make 
their nests — must quit those desolate coasts as soon as 
chilling rains, snow-storms, and frost begin to kill the 
insects, bury the plants and freeze the streams, thus cut- 
ting off food-supplies ; and they must keep ahead of those 
famine-producing conditions as they travel southward 
toward their winter-resorts in a more hospitable zone. 
On the average, their arrival in the United States will be 
nearly on the same date year after year. 

It sometimes happens, however, that winter will pounce 
upon the arctic border of the continent days or weeks 
earlier than usual, and the cold and snowfall will exceed 
the normal quantity. In such circumstances the birds 
must make their escape more hastily than ordinarily, and 
will come down across the Canadian border in larger and 
more hurrying companies, very likely accompanied by 
such species as snow-birds, crossbills, pine finches and 
evening grosbeaks, which in general pass the winter some- 
what to the north of our boundary. Excessive cold in 
the far North is almost certain to influence southern 
Canada and the northern states, and it is therefore safe 
to conclude, when we witness this behavior of migratory 
birds, that a winter of exceptional severity has set in at 
the north and is in store for us. But the prophets are 


ourselves — not the birds ! They are dealing with danger- 
ous conditions, and leave it to us to do the theorizing. 

One feature of the behavior of the fish-hawks in Wil- 
son's story was their restlessness, taken by fishermen to 
betoken a rising storm. There may be some value in this 
"sign," since it is noted in many other cases. Dozens of 
proverbs mention as indications various unusual actions 
noticeable in poultry, such as crowing at odd times, clap- 
pings of the wings, rolling in the dust, standing about in a 
distraught kind of way, a tendency to flocking, and so 
forth. Many popular sayings tell us that both barnyard 
fowls and wild birds become very noisy before an un- 
favorable change in the weather. 

When the peacock loudly bawls 
Soon we'll have both rain and squalls, 

is one such. Virgil's statement that "the owl" screeches 
unduly at such a time is supported by modern testimony. 

A reasonable explanation of this uneasiness is that it 
is the effect of that increased electrical tension in the at- 
mosphere that often precedes a shower, to which small 
creatures are perhaps more sensitive than are men and 
large animals. It will not do, then, to reject all the 
weather-signs popularly alleged to be given by animals. 

At the same time, as has been suggested, much of the 
current weather-prophecy relating to animals is silly, 
such, for example, that a solitary turkey-buzzard seen at 
a great altitude indicates rain; that blackbirds' notes are 
very shrill before rain ; that there will be no rain the day 
a heron flies down the creek ; that when woodpeckers peck 
low on the tree-trunks expect a hard winter. These, and 
many other nonsensical maxims, are in fact spurious. 
Most of them, no doubt, were uttered originally in jest, 


or as a whimsical answer to some inquisitive child, then 
repeated as amusing, and finally quoted seriously. Others 
have been brought to us from the old world by early 
farmer-immigrants — French in Canada, Louisiana and 
New England, Dutch in New York, Swedish and German 
in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Spanish in the South- 
west, and so on — and have been applied to our native 
birds, where often they fail to fit. A saw that perhaps had 
some value when told of the European robin or black- 
bird, is ludicrously inappropriate when said of our black- 
birds and robins, which are totally different in nature and 

One of the most venerable of these worthless prognos- 
tics, and one that very likely is a relic of Roman auspices, 
twenty-five centuries ago, is that of the goose-bone : 

"To read the winter of any year take the breast-bone of a 
goose hatched during the preceding spring. The bone is trans- 
lucent, and it will be found to be colored and spotted. The dark 
color and heavy spots indicate cold. If the spots are of light 
shade, and transparent, wet weather, rain or snow, may be 
looked for. 

"If the November goose-bone be thick, 

So will the winter weather be; 

If the November goose-bone be thin, 

So will the winter weather be." 

One need not wonder at the indignant refusal of hard- 
headed commanders of old who refused to let their strat- 
egy or tactics to be interfered with by alarmed priests 
who reported unfavorable auguries from dissected hens. 
Eusebius records the legend that a bird was presented to 
Alexander the Macedonian when on the point of setting 
out for the Red Sea, in order that he might read the 
auguries according to custom, Alexander killed the bird 


by an arrow, saying, "What folly is this ? How could a 
bird that could not foresee its death by this arrow, predict 
the fortunes of our journey?" The shocked bystanders 
might have replied, of course, that the poor creature had 
no such knowledge in itself, but was merely the blank on 
which divine intelligence was written ; but the chances are 
that they held their tongues ! Plutarch mentions many a 
case in which commanders construed the "omens" in a 
way contrary to the priestly interpretation, in order to 
carry out some plan that could not be delayed, and yet 
conciliate the superstitious soldiers. 

It will have been noticed that most of the prophecies 
learned from birds relate to coming rain or bad weather, 
and winter rather than summer. In The Strange Meta- 
morphosis of Man (1634), as quoted by Brewer, 34 speak- 
ing of the goose, we read: "She is no witch or astrologer, 
. . . but she hath a shrewd guesse of rainie weather, 
being as good as an almanac to some that beleeve in her." 
Men generally seem more desirous of ascertaining the 
evil than the good that may be in store for them. The 
feeling is, perhaps, that if we knew of dangers ahead we 
might prepare for them, but that in fair days we can take 
care of ourselves. Almost every country has some par- 
ticular "rain-bird" whose cry is supposed to foretell 
showers. In England it is the green woodpecker, or 
yaffle ; in Malaya a broadbill ; in some parts of this country 
the spotted sandpiper, or tipup ; but everywhere some sort 
of cuckoo is called "rain-bird" or "rain-crow," although 
the various cuckoos of America, Europe, and the Orient, 
differ widely in appearance, habits and voice. 

Why should peoples so dissimilar and widely scattered 
attribute to this very diverse cuckoo family the quality of 
"rain-birds" more than to another family? I can only 


believe that it denotes the survival of a very ancient 
Oriental notion, whose significance was very real in a 
symbolic way to the primitive people among whom it 
originated locally, but has now been utterly forgotten. 

Plunging into the thickets of comparative mythology, 
hoping to pluck a few fruity facts for our pains, we find 
that in Hindoo myths the cuckoo stands as a symbol of 
the sun when hidden behind clouds, that is, for a rainy 
condition of the sky; furthermore that this bird has a 
reputation for possessing exceeding wisdom surpassing 
that of other birds, all of which are fabled to be super- 
naturally wise : and that it knew not only things present 
but things to come. It was, in fact, in the opinion of the 
ancient Hindoos, a prophetic bird of unrivalled vatic 
ability. The Greeks thought their own cuckoo had in- 
herited some of these qualities, for they made it one of 
the birds in the Olympian aviary of Zeus, who, please re- 
member, was the pluvial god. 

Plainly this rainy-day character was given to the bird 
through the circumstance that in southern Asia, as in 
southern Europe, the cuckoo is one of the earliest and 
quite the most conspicuous of spring-birds — and the 
spring is the rainy season. In early days farmers had 
little knowledge of a calendar. They sowed and reaped 
when it seemed fitting to do so. The coming of the cuckoo 
coincided with experience, and came to be their almanac- 
date for certain operations — a signal convenient in advice 
to the young, or to a newcomer; and as a rule hoped-for 
showers followed the bird's advent. In the same way 
old-fashioned Pennsylvania farmers used to connect corn- 
planting time and the first-heard singing of the brown 

Hesiod instructed his rural countrymen that if "it 


should happen to rain three days in succession when the 
cuckoo sings among the oak-trees, then late sowing will 
be as good as early sowing" — doubtless good agricultural 
counsel. Not more than a century ago English farmers 
thought it necessary to sow barley when the earliest note 
of the cuckoo was heard in order to insure a full crop. 
Mr. Friend 11 reasons thus about this: "As the cuckoo 
only returns to our shores at a certain time, it has been 
customary to predict from his appearance what kind of 
season will follow; and farmers have in all ages placed 
great reliance on omens of weather and crops drawn from 
this source. ... In Berwickshire those oats which are 
sown after the first of April are called 'gowk's' [cuckoo's] 
oats . . . 

Cuckoo oats and wood cock hay 

Make a farmer run away. 

If the spring is so backward that the oats cannot be sown 
until the cuckoo is heard, or the autumn so wet that the 
hay cannot be gathered in until the woodcocks come over, 
the farmer is sure to suffer great loss." 

So much for these old maxims; and when British or 
Italian immigrants became colonists in America, and 
found cuckoos here, they continued the sayings, regard- 
less of difference in climate and other circumstances. Our 
species are not early migrants in spring, are poor guides 
for planters, and seem to have no prophetic gift, yet they 
are rain-birds because their ancestral relatives in India 
were such 3,000 years ago. 



IF anyone should ask you how a particular bird came 
to be blue or red or streaked, or how it happened 
that birds in general differ in colors and other fea- 
tures, "each after its kind," in other words how specific 
distinctions came about, you, a liberal-minded and well- 
read person, would undoubtedly answer that each and all 
"developed" these specific characteristics. You might go 
on to explain that they resulted from the combined influ- 
ences of natural and sexual selection, to the latter of 
which birds are supposed to be especially susceptible, and 
thereby show yourself a good Darwinist. 

But primitive thinkers, like children, are not evolution- 
ists but creationists. They believe that things were made 
as they are: if so, somebody made them. They are con- 
vinced that no person like themselves or any of their ac- 
quaintances could do it, so they attribute the feat to some 
being with superhuman powers. This being is almost al- 
ways the mythical ancestor, pristine instructor or "cul- 
ture-hero," of the nation, tribe or clan to which the 
thinker belongs ; and it is perfectly natural and a matter 
of course to assume that he had magical functions and 
supernatural powers. Next, some genius invents a story 
to fit the case, and as anything is possible to such a being 
as the hero it is adopted and passed into the tribal history 
that the elders recount by the evening fire, and that every- 



body accepts without suspicion or criticism. The He- 
brews, for example, said that Adam, their "first man," 
"gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and 
to every beast of the field; . . . and whatsoever Adam 
called every living creature that was the name thereof." 
As to his reasons for giving this name to one creature 
and another to that, it has been whimsically explained that 
he called the raccoon that because "it looked like a 'coon' " 
— quite as good a reason as the legend requires. 

Now the two questions at the beginning of this chapter 
were, in fact, asked by a great variety of our aboriginal 
Americans, the red Indians, and undoubtedly by the ab- 
origines of most other countries ; but for the present let us 
stick to North America. 

When some bright-witted, inquisitive Iroquois young- 
ster, hearing and seeing many birds on a soft June morn- 
ing, asked his mother how it happened that they wore 
such a diversity of plumages, she told him this story: In 
the beginning the birds were naked, but some of them be- 
came ashamed, and cried for coverings. (In those days, 
of course, birds talked with one another, and even with 
the wiser sort of men.) They were told that their suits 
were ready but were a long way off. At last the turkey- 
buzzard was persuaded to go and get them. He had been 
a clean bird, but during the long journey had to eat much 
carrion and filth, hence his present nature. Guided by 
the gods he reached the store of plumages, and selfishly 
chose for himself the most beautifully colored dress, but 
as he found he could not fly in it he was forced to take 
his present one, which enables him to soar most grace- 
fully. Finally he brought their varied suits to the other 

The Iroquois lad would be quite satisfied with this 


account of the matter ; but a boy on the opposite side of 
the continent would get a very different explanation. He 
would be told that Raven did it. Raven — or the raven — 
was the mythical ancestor or culture hero, as ethnologists 
would say, of the foremost clan of the Tlingit tribe, 
whose territory was in southern Alaska. He was present 
at the making of the world and its people, and did many 
marvellous things. While he was at Sitka arranging 
affairs in the new world he assigned to all the birds, one 
by one, the place of their resort and their habits, and his 
good nature is shown by the fact that to the robin and 
the hummingbird he assigned the duty of giving pleasure 
to men, the former by its song and the latter by its beauty. 
By and by the birds dressed one another in different ways, 
so that they might easily be recognized apart. They tied 
the hair of the blue jay up high with a string, put a striped 
coat on the little woodpecker, and so on. The Kwakiutl 
coastal Indians of British Columbia deny this, however. 
They say the birds did not select their own costumes, but 
that one of their ancestors painted all the birds he found 
at a certain place. When he reached the cormorant his 
colors were exhausted and he had only charcoal left, hence 
the cormorant is wholly black. 

George Keith," who in 1807 was a fur-trader on the 
Mackenzie River, gathered and recorded much valuable 
material as to the customs and ideas of the Beaver 
Indians of that region, who belonged to the Ojibway 
family. In one of his stories Keith gives the Indians' ex- 
planation of how certain birds got their colors: it was 
during the time of a great flood. At that period all birds 
were white, but lepervier (the sharp-shinned hawk), 
l'emerillon (the goshawk), and l'canard de France 
(mallard) agreed to change to a plumage in colors — how 


it was to be done the Indians were unable to say. The 
story proceeds: 

Immediately after this event the corbeau [raven] made his 
appearance. "Come," says l'epervier to the corbeau, "would you 
not wish to have a coat like mine?" "Hold your tongue!" re- 
joined the corbeau. "With your crooked bill is not white hand- 
somer than any other color?" The others argued with the 
corbeau to consent, but he remained inflexible, which so 
exasperated l'epervier and the others that they determined to 
avenge this affront, and each taking a burnt coal in his bill 
they blacked him all over. The corbeau, enraged at this treat- 
ment, and determined not to be singular, espied a flock of 
etourneaux [blackbirds] and, without shaking off the black dust 
of his feathers, threw himself amongst them and bespattered 
them all over with black, which is the reason for their still re- 
taining this color. 

Further south, on Puget Sound, once lived the tribe of 
Twanas, who held that in former times men painted 
themselves in various hues, whereupon Dokblatt, their 
culture-hero, who notoriously was fond of changing 
things, turned these men into birds, which explains the 
present diversity in avian plumage. 

The Arawaks of Venezuela, however, account for this 
matter by saying that the birds obtained their gay feathers 
by selecting parts of a huge, gaudily colored water-snake 
that the cormorant killed for them by diving into the 
water; yet the cormorant, with great modesty, kept for 
himself only the snake's head, which was blackish. 

Most explanatory stories concern single kinds of birds, 
and inform us how they got the peculiar features by which 
we identify them with their names ; and here we get back 
to the nearctic raven. A history of the exploits of this 
personage — bird, bird-man or bird-god — who is the hero 
of more tales than any other of the giants that flourished 



in the formative period of the northern Indian's world, 
would fill a big book. 'The creator of all things and 
the benefactor of man was the great raven called by the 
Thlingit Yel, Yeshil or Yeatl, and by the Haida Ne-kil- 
stlas. He was not exactly an ordinary bird but had . . . 
many human attributes, and the power of transforming 
himself into anything in the world. His coat of feathers 
could be put on or taken off at will like a garment, and he 
could assume any character whatever. He existed before 
his birth, never grows old, and will never die." So Mr. 
(now Admiral) Niblack, U. S. N., characterized this 
supreme magician; 100 and Dr. E. W. Nelson 101 adds 
that this creation-legend is believed by the Eskimos 
from the Kuskoquim River in southern Alaska northward 
to Bering Strait, and thence eastward all along the Arctic 
Coast. The purely mythological relation of this widely 
revered northwestern raven is thus summarized by 
Brinton 27 : 

This father of the race is represented as a mighty bird, called 
Yel, or Yale, or Orelbale, from the root [Athabascan] ell, a 
term they apply to everything supernatural. He took to wife a 
daughter of the Sun (the Woman of Light), and by her begat 
the race of men. He formed the dry land for a place for them 
to live upon, and stocked the rivers with salmon that they might 
have food. When he enters his nest it is day, but when he leaves 
it it is night; or, according to another myth, he has two women 
for wives, the one of whom makes the day, the other the night. 
In the beginning Yel was white in plumage, but he had an 
enemy ... by whose machinations he was turned black. Yel is 
further represented as the god of the winds and storms, and of 
the thunder and lightning. 

It is plain that in studying the deeds and accidents 
attributed to this American member of the sun-born 
"fabulous flock" described in another chapter, it is often 


difficult to separate Raven the demigod, from the sable, 
kawing, cunning bird so conspicuous all over northern 
Canada; and in this respect Yel differs from Rukh, 
Simurgh, and the other similar figments of Oriental 
fancies, in that he is modelled upon a real bird, rather than 
on something utterly unknown to earthly ornithology. 

A favorite tale with many variants describes how the 
cormorant lost its voice. As the Haidas of Queen 
Charlotte Islands tell it, Raven once invited the cormorant 
to go a-fishing with him. The cormorant went, and 
naturally caught many fish, while the Raven took none. 
Then Raven, angry made the cormorant stick out its 
tongue. 'There is something on it," quoth Raven, and 
pulled the tongue out by the roots; and that is why 
cormorants have no voice.* 

Here Raven is plainly the supernatural, irresponsible 
being of Totemic importance, who often presented him- 
self as a man or in some other form, for he could assume 
any shape he liked. Thus the Hudson Bay Eskimos relate 
that Raven was a man who loudly cautioned persons when 
moving a village-camp not to forget the deer-skin under- 
blanket called "kak": so he got that nickname, and 
ravens still fly about fussily calling kak! kak! The Tlingits 
also have a story in which Raven begins the action as a 
man, and ends plain bird — an outwitted one at that. Raven 
was in a house and played a trick on Petrel, then tried to 
get away by flying up through the smoke-hole in the 

* The cormorant was once a wool-merchant. He entered into a 
partnership with the bramble and the bat, and they freighted a large 
ship with wool. She was wrecked and the firm became bankrupt. 
Since that disaster the bat skulks about until midnight to avoid his 
creditors, the cormorant is forever diving into the deep to discover 
its foundered vessel, while the bramble seizes hold of every pass- 
ing sheep to make up the firm's loss by stealing the wool. This is 
an ancient European story quite as silly as the Haida one. 


roof, but got stuck there. Seeing this Petrel built a birch- 
wood fire under him, so as to make much smoke. The 
raven was white before that time, but the smudge 
blackened him forever. 

The Greenland Eskimos account for the change in the 
raven from white to black by the story of its vexing the 
snow-owl, which was its fast friend in the ancient days 
before marvels became marvellous. One day the raven 
made a new dress, dappled black and white (the summer 
plumage), for the owl, which in return fashioned a pair 
of whalebone boots for the raven, and also a white dress, 
as was proper for ravens at that time ; but the raven would 
not stay quiet while it was tried on. The owl shouted 
angrily, "Sit still or I shall pour the lamp over you!" 
Nevertheless the bird kept hopping about until the owl, 
out of patience, picked up the soapstone saucer-lamp and 
drenched him with the sooty lamp-oil. Since then the 
ever-restless raven has been black all over. 

The Haidas say that the crow likewise was originally 
white, and that on one occasion Raven turned it black as 
a spiteful sort of joke. 

It is interesting to recall that in classic myth ravens 
were once as white as swans and as large ; but one day a 
raven told his patron, Apollo, that Coronis, a Thessalian 
nymph whom he passionately loved, was faithless, where- 
upon the god shot the nymph with his dart, but hating 
the telltale bird 

... he blacked the raven o'er 

And bid him prate in his white plumes no more, 

as Ovid sings in Addison's translation. Some accounts 
say that one of Odin's messenger-ravens was white. 
To this day the peasants about Brescia, in Italy, speak 


of January 30 and 31, and February 1, as "blackbird 
days," and explained that many years ago the local black- 
birds were white; but in one hard winter it was so cold 
these thrushes were compelled to take refuge in chimneys, 
and ever since have worn a sooty plumage. 

This belief that the sable brotherhood of the crow-tribe 
was once white seems to be universal, and perhaps arises 
in the equally general, albeit somewhat childish, feeling 
that nothing is as it used to be; and coupled with this is 
the similarly common feeling that every event or con- 
dition ought to be accounted for. Thus we get a glimpse 
at the psychology in these primitive stories of the reason 
why this and that animal is as we see it. Skeat 7 found 
among the Malays, for example, a legend that in the days 
of King Solomon the argus pheasant was dowdily 
dressed, and it besought the crow to paint its plumage in 
splendid colors. The crow complied and gave the 
pheasant its present beautifully variegated costume; but 
when the artist asked for a similar service toward itself 
from the pheasant the latter not only refused but spilt a 
bottle of ink over the crow. 

To return to the erratic, and usually mischievous career 
of Yel, the Northwestern (raven) culture-hero, it is re- 
membered that often, kindly or unkindly, he changed 
sundry birds besides owls from something else into their 
present form. For example, he sent a hawk into the 
Tlingit country after fire. Previously the hawk's bill 
had been long, but in bringing the fire this long beak was 
burned short, and has ever remained so. Nelson 101 
learned from Alaskan Eskimos why the short-eared owl 
has so diminutive a beak, nearly hidden in the feathers of 
the flat face. This owl, it appears, was once a little girl 
who lived in a village by the lower Yukon. "She was 


changed by magic into a bird with a long bill, and became 
so frightened that she sprang up and flew off in an erratic 
way until she struck the side of a house, flattening her 
beak and face so that she became just as the owls are seen 

Raven made woodpeckers (red-shafted flickers) out of 
the blood that gushed from his nose after he had bruised 
it ; and Haida fishermen now tie scarlet flicker feathers to 
their halibut hooks "for luck." Their neighbors, the 
Clalams, thought it better to use a piece of kingfisher skin 
— and in my opinion their reasoning was the sounder of 
the two. Perhaps it was Raven whom the Tshimshian 
Indians of Nass River meant when they spoke of 
"Giant's" treatment of the gulls. The Giant, as Pro- 
fessor Boaz heard it designated, had some oolachans 
(smelts) and stuck them on sticks to roast by his fire. 
"When they were done a gull appeared over the Giant. 
Then the Giant called him 'Little Gull/ Then many 
gulls came, which ate all the Giant's oolachans. They said 
while they were eating it qana, qana, qana! Then he was 
sad. Therefore he took the gulls and threw them into 
the fireplace, and ever since the tips of their wings have 
been black." 

The culture-hero of the Twana Indians of the Puget 
Sound region was Dokibat, as has been mentioned, who 
had a habit of changing things, turning men into stones 
or birds, and so forth. A boy hearing that he was com- 
ing, and fearing some unpleasant transformation, ran 
away, carrying with him a water-box (used in canoe- 
journeys by sea) with water in it. The water shaking 
about sounded somewhat like pu-pn-pu when repeated 
rapidly ; but as the boy ran wings came to him and he be- 
gan to fly, and the noise in the box sounded like the cooing 


of the wood-dove, which the Twans called "hum-o." A 
man was pounding against a cedar-tree. Dokibat came 
along and asked him what he was doing. "Trying to 
break or split this tree," was the answer. Dokibat said: 
"You may stop and go away, and I will help you." As 
the woodman went wings came to him, also a long bill and 
a strong head, and he became a woodpecker. 

How the woodpecker got the red mark on the back of 
its head, which is a characteristic of most species, is ex- 
plained by the Algonkins thus, according to School- 
craft: 102 Manabozho, the renowned culture-hero of the 
Ojibways and their relatives, made a campaign against 
the Shining Manito, and at last, finding him in his lair, a 
mortal combat began. At length Manabozho had left 
only three arrows, and the fight was going against him. 
Ma-ma, the woodpecker, cried out: "Shoot him at the 
base of the scalp-lock; it is his only vulnerable spot!" 
(The Indians have many stories turning on this point, 
and reminding us of that of Achilles.) Then with the 
third and last arrow Manabozho hit the fatal spot, and 
taking the scalp of the Shining Manito as a trophy he 
rubbed blood from it on the woodpecker's head, which 
remains red in his descendants. That the redheaded 
species (Melanerpes torquatus), abundant in summer in 
the O jib way country, is meant here is evident from the 
further statement that its red feathers were thereafter 
regarded as symbols of valor, and were chosen to orna- 
ment the warriors' pipes, for no other woodpecker of the 
region could furnish enough such feathers to answer the 

The Menominees, of southern Wisconsin, had a dif- 
ferent story relating to the scarlet crest of another kind 
of woodpecker. They say that Ball-carrier, who was a 


bad-tempered sort of fellow among their demigods, 
promised the logcock, or big black woodpecker of the 
forest, that if he would kill a certain Cannibal-Woman he 
should have a piece of her scalp with its lock of red hair. 
So the bird rushed at her and drove his chisel-like beak 
into her heart. Then Ball-carrier gave her red scalp-lock 
to the logcock, which placed it on his own head, as one 
may see now. In Indo-European mythology woodpeckers 
figure among lightning-birds, and the red mark on their 
heads is deemed the badge of their office. 

The need of accounting for notable features like this 
in animals seems to have appealed to all sorts of people, 
all around the world, in each case according to local ideas. 
Thus an Arabic tradition current in Palestine accounts 
for the fork in the tail of swallows by the fact that a bird 
of this species baffled a scheme of the Old Serpent (Eblis) 
in Paradise, whereupon the serpent struck at it, but suc- 
ceeded only in biting out a notch in the middle of its tail. 
Another example: Nigerian negros say that the vulture 
got its bald head by malicious transference of a disease 
with which a green pigeon had been suffering — a native 
guess at the filth-bacteria to which modern zoologists at- 
tribute the nakedness! Oddly enough, a folk-tale in 
Louisiana, related by Fortier, 106 similarly explains the 
baldness of our turkey-buzzard by saying it came from 
a pan of hot ashes thrown at the vulture's head in revenge 
for an injury it had committed on a rabbit — and "buz- 
zards never eat bones of rabbits." 

The Iowas account for the peculiar baldness of this 
bird by a long story recounted by Spence 12 in which 
their mythical hero Ictinike figures. Ictinike asked a 
buzzard to carry him toward a certain place. The crafty 
bird consented, but presently dropped him in a tall hollow 


tree. Ictinike was wearing 'coonskins, and when 
presently some persons came along he thrust their tails 
through cracks in the trunk. Three women, thinking 
that raccoons had become imprisoned in the tree, cut a 
hole to capture them, whereupon Ictinike came out and 
the women ran away. Then Ictinike lay down wrapped 
in his furs as if asleep, and an eagle, a crow, and a magpie 
came and began pecking at him. The buzzard, thinking 
this meant a feast, rushed down from the sky, and 
Ictinike jumped up and tore off its scalp, since which the 
buzzard has been bald. 

But many explanations of why birds are now so or so 
make no mention of Ravens or Ictinikes, but just tell you 
the fact. Thus the Eskimos of northwestern Alaska re- 
late that one autumn day very long ago the cranes pre- 
pared to go southward. As they were gathered in a great 
flock they saw a beautiful girl standing alone near a vil- 
lage. Admiring her greatly, the cranes gathered about 
her, and lifting her on their wide-spread wings bore her 
far up and away. While the cranes were taking her aloft 
their brethren circled about below her so closely that she 
could not fall, and with hoarse cries drowned her screams 
for help. So she was swept away into the sky, and 
never seen again. Always since that time the cranes have 
circled about in autumn, uttering loud cries. 

The Hudson Bay Eskimos tell their boys and girls 
when they see the funny little guillemots by the sea-cliffs 
and ask about them, that once a lot of children were play- 
ing near the brink of such a precipice. Their noisy shouts 
disturbed a band of seal-hunters on the strand below; 
and one of the men exclaimed, "I wish the cliff would 
topple over and bury those noisy children !" In a 
moment the height did so, and the poor infants fell 


among the rocks below. There they were changed into 
guillemots and dwell to this day on the crags at the edge 
of the sea. 

Another juvenile story explains that the swallows be- 
came what they are by a change from Eskimo children 
who were making "play-house" igloos of mud on the 
top of a cliff. To this day the swallows come every sum- 
mer and fix their mud nests to the rocks, recalling their 
childish joy in the previous state of their existence. 
Hence the Eskimo children particularly love to watch 
these birds in their "igluiaks," which are said not to be 
molested by the predatory ravens. 

Once a long war was fought between the brants and 
the herons, according to a Tlingit legend, but at last the 
swans intervened and a peace was arranged. To celebrate 
it the herons indulged in much dancing, and have been 
dancers ever since. I am inclined to think this another 
crane legend, because the few herons known in the Tlingit 
country do not indulge in such antics, whereas the 
cranes do "dance" a great deal in the mating-season. 
These Indians, by the way, say that they learned the use 
of pickaxes by watching a heron strike the ground with 
its beak; and the suggestion of snowshoes was caught 
from the ptarmigan, on whose feet grow in winter ex- 
pansions of the toes that serve to make it easier for the 
bird to walk on snow. 

The ruffed grouse, the Ojibways declare, was marked 
with eleven spots on its tail to remind him of the time 
when he wouldn't do as he was told, and had to fast 
eleven days as a punishment. On the other hand Mana- 
bozho rewarded the kingfisher for some useful informa- 
tion by hanging a medal (in color) about its neck; but in 
bestowing the medal Manabozho snatched at the king- 


fisher's head, intending to twist it off — a very character- 
istic dodge of these treacherous old culture-heroes — but 
only rumpled the bird's crest, so that it has been a ragged 
sort of headdress ever since. 

The extinct Chitimacha Indians of northern Louisiana 
had a tale that a man set the marshes on fire, and a little 
bird uprose through the smoke and remonstrated. The 
man was angry and threw a shell at the bird, which 
wounded its wings and made them bleed, and thus the 
red-winged blackbird got its scarlet shoulders. 

A familiar and active little shrike of the northern 
border of South America is the kiskadee, with a con- 
spicuous white mark on its head. The Arawaks say that 
this radiant little songster, which has the same sort of 
fierce hostility to hawks and other large birds as dis- 
tinguishes our doughty kingbird, got tired of a war that 
was going on among the animals, put a white bandage 
around its head and pretended to be sick. The war 
halted long enough to expose the fraud of the little mal- 
ingerer, and kiskadees were sentenced to wear the white 
bandage perpetually. 

Arawak story-tellers also relate that the trumpeter 
(Psophia) and a kingfisher quarrelled over the spoils of 
war, and knocked each other into the ashes, which ac- 
counts for the gray of their plumage. The nakedness of 
the trumpeter's legs is owing to his stepping into an 
ant's nest, and getting them picked clean. The owl dis- 
covered a package among the spoil of the war that con- 
tained only darkness, since which that bird cannot endure 
daylight. It is interesting to compare with this the ad- 
venture of the trumpeter current among the Maquiritares, 
which is related elsewhere. 

So the stories go on. The Pimas, for example, believe 


that the mountain bluebird was originally an unlovely 
gray, but acquired its present exquisite azure coat by 
bathing in a certain lake of blue water that had neither 
inlet nor outlet. It bathed in this regularly for four 
mornings. On the fourth morning it shed all its plumage 
and came out with the skin bare ; but on the fifth morn- 
ing it emerged from its bath with a coat of blue. 

This tradition is somewhat sentimental, as befits the 
sweetly warbling and beloved bluebird, which is not only 
a favorite, but has a certain sacredness in the southwest ; 
but often, in the majority of cases perhaps, a rough 
humor tinges the history. Thus Manabush, a mythical an- 
cestor of the Menominees, once assembled all the birds 
by a subterfuge, and then killed several. The little grebe, 
or "hell-diver," was one of those chosen for death, and 
as it was a poor runner it was easily caught. Manabush 
said contemptuously, "I won't kill you, but you shall al- 
ways have red eyes and be the laughing-stock of all the 
birds." With that he gave the poor bird a kick, sending 
it far out into Lake Michigan and knocking off its tail, 
so that the hell-diver is red-eyed and almost tailless to this 

I have restricted this chapter mainly to examples from 
the folklore of the American Indians, but, were there not 
danger of becoming tedious, many more might be quoted 
from the fireside tales of other countries, especially 
Africa. African traditions, however, can hardly be held 
to account for the following explanations by some 
Southern darkies as given by Martha Young 2 : 

The bluejay was yoked into a plow by the sparrow, and the 
necklace-like mark on his breast is the mark left by the yoke 
worn in this degrading service. 

The buzzard originally had a "fine plume sweepin' from de 


top of his head," but lost it in a quarrel with a dog. "Sense 
dat day Buzzard don't never miss fust pickin' out de eye of 
ev'thing that he gwine eat," so that it cannot see to resist if it 
is not quite dead. 

Darkies say that the hummingbird lost her voice — "she choke 
her voice clean out of her wid honey" — through being so greedy 
when she first discovered the honey in flowers, by reason of 
contracting a "swimmin' in de head" by incessant whirling, as 
her poising on wings seems to the negroes. "She hav a notion 
now that she los' her voice . . . deep in some flower. She's 
al'a'rs lookin' fer dat los' voice. Flash in dis flower ! Dash in 
dat flower ! But she'll nuvver, nuvver fin' it." 

Charles G. Leland quotes in his Etruscan Roman 
Remains 97 a note given him by Miss Mary Owen, of 
St. Joseph, Missouri, that the negroes and half-breeds in 
southern Missouri consider the redheaded woodpecker 
a great sorcerer, who can appear as either a bird or as 
a redman with a mantle or cloak on his arm. He is sup- 
posed to be very grateful or very vengeful as his mood 
requires. He sometimes bores holes in the heads of his 
enemies, while they sleep, and puts in maggots which keep 
the victims forever restless and crazy. He made the 
bat by putting a rat and a bird together. 


NOTHING in nature, except perhaps the rising 
and setting of the sun, has impressed mankind 
more than the fearsome phenomena of a thun- 
der-storm. Such a storm in the Rocky Mountains, or 
among the Californian Sierras, is truly terrifying in its 
magnificence, and it is none the less so in the Alps or 
Himalayas or on the volcanic summits of Central 
Africa. The lightnings dart about the darkly clouded 
peaks, and the thunder-crashes leap from cliff to cliff 
in echoes that stun one, for they seem like vast iron 
missies hurled by Titanic strength, and rebounding from 
crags that are falling in prodigious ruin — perhaps on 
your head. 

On the plains, too, such a storm may be fearfully 
grand, for amid rolling thunders and a tremendous 
downpour of rain come an incessant flash and sparkle 
of lightnings that illuminate the prairie with a violet 
flame almost blinding in its glare. A person who did 
not comprehend the physical meaning of such a display 
might well be excused for trembling in awe and terror — 
moreover, the danger is real. 

I believe that almost from the first there were wise 
men, the philosophers of their time, who understood that 
the clouds were fleeting masses of fog, that rain was 
the water pressed out of them, and that the lightning 
and its associated rumble were somehow as natural as 



the blowing of the wind. The mass of wondering and 
terrified people, however, could not think of the rush 
and noise and glare of stormy weather otherwise than 
as something produced by living beings of huge, mys- 
terious and usually destructive power; and they were 
as real to them, although invisible, as are the electric 
currents and tremendous air-vibrations to us. Among 
the aboriginal Chinese electricity was represented as 
residing on the mountains in the form of birds, and 
their Thunder-god is pictured with a bird's beak and 
claws, and armed with a drum and hammer. 

'The drama of mythology," De Gubernatis tells us, 
"has its origin in the sky; but the sky may be either 
clear or gloomy; it may be illumined by the sun or by 
the moon; it may be obscured by the darkness of night, 
or the condensation of its vapors into clouds. . . . The 
god who causes rain to fall, who from the highest 
heaven fertilizes the earth, takes the form now of a ram, 
now of a bull; the lightning that flies like a winged 
arrow, is represented now as a bird, now as winged 
horse; and thus, one after another, all the shifting phe- 
nomena of the heavens take the form of animals, be- 
coming at length now the hero himself, now the animal 
that waits upon the hero, and without which he would 
possess no supernatural power whatever." 

To the minds of the redmen in the eastern part of 
the United States the violent storms frequent in sum- 
mer were somehow produced by vague supernatural 
beings spoken of as Thunder-gods; but on the open 
prairies and plains of the West, where even more ter- 
rific electric disturbances occur, and also along the 
Northwest Coast and in Alaska, they were attributed to 
birds of enormous size, who darkened the rain-clouds 



with their shadows and produced thunder by flapping 
their wings and lightning by opening their eyes, shoot- 
ing naming arrows, and so forth. Some tribes believed 
in one such bird only, others in a family or flock of 
them variously colored, while still others declared that 
the agent was a giant who clothed himself in a huge 
bird-skin as a flying-dress. 

If one asked what any one of these creatures was like, 
the answer usually was that it resembled a colossal eagle. 
The Comanches and Arapahoes described it to Dr. 
Mooney as a big bird with a brood of small ones, and 
said that it carried in its claws a quantity of arrows 
with which it strikes the victims of lightning. This 
reminds us of the bird of Jove in classic fable, clutching 
the javelins of his master, the Thunderer; and a comic 
touch is that these southern Indians called the eagle 
stamped on our coins by their thunder-bird's name, 
innocently supposing that our national emblem was their 
"baa," the lightning-maker! 

The Mandans, a Dakotan tribe, say that the thunder- 
bird has two toes on each foot — one before and one 
behind; and the Algonquian Blackfeet represent it on 
their medicine-lodges by simply drawing four black bird- 
claws on a yellow shank. When it flies softly, as is usually 
its way, according to the Mandans, it is not heard by 
mankind, but when it flaps its wings violently a roaring 
noise is produced. It breaks through the clouds to force 
a way for the rain, and the glance of its fiery eyes 
appears in the lightnings. "We don't see the thunder- 
birds," a Winnebago Indian explained. "We see their 
flashes only." 

This terrifying creature dwelt on a remote mountain, 
or on some rocky elevation difficult of access, and built 


a nest as big as a village, surrounded by the bones and 
horns of the great animals on which it preyed. Every 
tribal district seems to have had at least one pair. The 
Indians about Lake Superior believed that theirs were 
at home on the beetling heights of that bold promontory 
on the northern shore of the lake long celebrated as 
Thunder Cape. This is, for natural reasons, a theatre 
of electric action, which the Chippeways accounted for 
by the fiction of a magic bird — quite as natural in its 
way as is the meteorology. At any rate the redmen 
feared to climb the mountain and prove their theory, for 
they said men had been struck by lightning there in im- 
pious attempts at investigating the bird-god — the old 
story of religious interference with scientific curiosity. 
These same people held that their thunder-bird sat on 
her eggs during fair weather, and hatched out her brood 
in the storm — which hatching was the storm. 

"A place," says the ethnologist Mooney, 77 "known to 
the Sioux as Waqkina-oye, 'the Thunderer's nest* — 
. . . is in eastern South Dakota in the neighborhood of 
Big Stone Lake. At another place, near the summit 
of the Coteau des Prairies, in eastern South Dakota, a 
number of large round boulders are pointed out as the 
eggs of the thunder-bird. According to the Comanches 
there is a place on upper Red River where the thunder- 
bird once alighted on the ground. . . . The same people 
tell how a hunter once shot and wounded a large bird 
which fell to the ground. Being afraid to attack it alone 
on account of its size, he returned to camp for help, 
but on again approaching the spot the hunters heard 
the thunder rolling and saw flashes of lightning shoot- 
ing out from the ravine where the bird lay wounded. 
On coming nearer the lightning blinded them so that they 


could not see the bird, and one flash struck and killed a 
hunter. His frightened companions then fled back to 
camp, for they knew it was a thunder-bird." 

In contrast to this the Eskimos of the lower Yukon 
Valley tell of a former man of their race who dared, 
after others had failed, to raid the lair of and kill a 
gigantic fowl that for a long time had preyed as a 
"man-eater" on the village of their ancestors ; 'and they 
have held this man in high honor as a hero to this day. 

This conception of a thunder-and-lightning-producing 
bird has a prominent place among the notions of the 
native inhabitants of the northwestern American coast- 
country, where the attributed characteristics and deeds 
vary with local surroundings and tribal peculiarities. In 
one place a storm was supposed to result from its 
activity in catching whales; and a Chehalis legend has 
it that Thunderbird sprang from a whale killed by 
South Wind. As soon as it was born South Wind fol- 
lowed it, and Ootz-Hooi, the giantess, found its nest 
and threw the eggs down a cliff. From these eggs 
sprang the Chehalis people. The Tlingit, of the South- 
ern Alaskan coast-region, account for the great amount 
of rain that falls in a thunder-shower by explaining 
that the thunder-bird carries a lake on its back. A con- 
ventional representation of the thunder-bird as it appears 
to the Haidas of this Northwest Coast decorates the 
title-page of this book. 

The Salish Indians of the Thomson River region, in 
southern British Columbia, believe that the thunder- 
bird uses its wings as bows to shoot arrows, i.e., light- 
nings. 'The rebound of his wings in the air, after 
shooting, makes the thunder. For this reason the 
thunder is often heard in different parts of the sky at 


once, being the noise from each wing. The arrowheads 
fired by the thunder are found in many parts of the 
country. They are of black stone and of very large 
size." The last statement may refer to meteoric stones, 
or it may be purely fanciful. A common belief among 
the farmer-folk of Europe is that the smooth, chisel- 
shaped tools or weapons of prehistoric (Neolithic) men, 
frequently turned up by the plow, and known technically 
as "celts," are thunderbolts; but this is only incidental 
to the present theme. 

The raven is a hero-bird among the Cherokees, who 
say that he became black by attempting to bring fire 
from a hollow tree that had been set on fire purposely 
by "the Thunderer" by means of lightning. The bird 
did not succeed, and blackened its plumage forever. 

In Japan the ptarmigan, a dweller on mountain-tops, 
is called rai-cho, "thunder-bird," and is "sacred to the 
God of Thunder," as Weston expresses it, adding that 
"pictures of them are often hung up in farmers' cot- 
tages as a charm against lightning." 

Thunderstorms are usually accompanied by much 
wind, and the common conception of birds as the agent 
of wind, or the wind itself, has been exhibited briefly 
in another chapter; it prevailed not only among our 
American Indians but in various other parts of the 
world, including South Africa — or did, when men were 
less skeptical of such ideas than now. In ancient San- 
skrit mythology the delicate white cirrus cloud drifting 
overhead was a fleeting swan, and so also was it in the 
creed of the early Scandinavians and to our wild Nava- 
hoes — a good illustration not only of independent and 
parallel images for an idea, but of the likeness of human 
minds under great diversity of race and conditions. 


Black clouds were thought of by the Norse folks as 
"ravens coursing over the earth and returning to whisper 
the news in the ear of listening Odin," as Baring-Gould 
expresses it. The immemorial resemblance traced be- 
tween bird and cloud is not far-fetched: and recurs to 
the modern poet as it did in olden times to the Psalmist 
when he spoke of the wings of the wind. "The rush- 
ing vapor is the roc of the Arabian Nights, which broods 
over its great luminous tgg f the sun, and which haunts 
the sparkling Valley of Diamonds, the starry sky. . . . 
If the cloud was supposed to be a great bird, the light- 
nings were regarded as writhing worms or serpents in 
its beak. . . . The lightning-bolt, shattering all it struck, 
was regarded as the stone dropped by the cloud-bird." 5 * 

In the Kalevala Puhuri, the North Wind, father of 
Pakkanen, the Frost, is sometimes personified as a 
gigantic eagle. 

These facts and considerations prepare the way for 
legends that began to be told in the very beginning of 
things, because then, and until yesterday, all ordinary 
folks thought them true as well as interesting; and 
they are repeated even now as curiosities of primitive 
faith — stories of birds and plants called "openers." 

The oldest, perhaps, is the Rabbinical legend of Solo- 
mon, who desired to obtain a stone-breaking "worm" 
(so the idea was even then ancient!) in possession of 
Asmodeus, the Demon of Destruction. Asmodeus re- 
fused to fetch it, and told Solomon that if he wanted 
this magic creature (whose name was schamir) he must 
find the nest of "the," not "a," moorhen and cover it 
with a plate of glass so that the motherbird could not 
get access to her young. This was done. When the 
moorhen returned and saw the situation she flew away, 


brought the schamir from its hiding-place, and was 
about to lay it on the glass, which it would break; but 
Benaiah, Solomon's agent, who lay in wait, shouted, 
and so frightened the bird that she dropped the schamir, 
whereupon Benaiah picked it up, as he had planned to 
do. It was by aid of this "worm," which shaped the 
stone-work for him, that Solomon was able to build 
his Temple without sound of hammer or saw. Other 
versions assert that a raven or an eagle was the bird, 
and that the magic glass-breaker was a stone brought 
from the uttermost East. 

The story travelled to Greece, and there became at- 
tached to the hoopoe, a small crested bird that figures 
largely in south-European and African wonder-tales. 
A hoopoe, runs the Greek story, had a nest in an old 
wall in which was a crevice. The proprietor, noticing 
the rent in his wall, plastered it over; thus when the 
hoopoe returned to feed her young she found that the 
nest had been covered so that she was unable to enter it. 

Forthwith she flew away in quest of a plant called poa 
(the springwort?), and having found a spray returned and 
applied it to the plaster, which at once fell off from the crack 
and gave her free access to her nest. Then she went forth 
to seek food, but during her absence the master again plas- 
tered up the hole. The object was again removed by means 
of the magic poa, and a third time the hole was stopped and 
opened in the same way. 

The springwort and several other flowering plants were 
credited in old times with a magical property in opening locks. 
"Pliny records the superstition concerning it almost in the 
same form in which it is now found in Germany. If any- 
one touches a lock with it the lock, however strong, must 
yield. . . . One cannot easily find it oneself, but generally the 
woodpecker [according to Pliny, also the raven; in Switzer- 
land and Swabia the hoopoe; in the Tyrol the swallow] will 
bring it under the following circumstances: When the bird 



visits its nest the nest must be stopped up with wood. The 
bird will open it by touching it with a spring-wurzel. Mean- 
time a fire or a red cloth must be placed near by, which will 
so frighten the bird that it will let the magic root fall." 

The English antiquary Aubrey (1626-97) records an 
anecdote of a keeper of a baronial park in Hereford- 
shire who "did for exponent's sake drive an iron naile 
thwert the hole of the woodpecker's nest, there being 
a tradition that the damme will bring some leafe to 
open it. He layed at the bottom of the tree a cleane 
sheet, and before many houres passed the naile came 
out, and he found a leafe lying by it on the sheet. They 
say the moonwort will do such things." The moonwort 
is a fern which was formerly reputed to have power to 
draw nails out of horseshoes. 

From such roots as these grew the superstitions and 
legends innumerable of plants that would cure a snake 
(another lightning-symbol) or other animal of wounds, 
or even restore the dead. A tradition of the Middle 
Ages is that two little birds were seen fighting till one 
was exhausted. "It went away and ate of a certain 
herb and then returned to renew the battle. When the 
old man who witnessed the encounter had seen this done 
several times he took away the herb on which the bird 
was wont to feed, whereupon the little bird, unable to 
find its plant, set up a great cry and died." It is a 
foolish little story, but illustrative. 

One reads of magic crystals, and of gems with mar- 
vellous properties that would open mountains in which 
princes or glittering treasures were hidden. A curious 
example of this is related by Leland 97 anent the con- 
stant and ordinarily fruitless hunt for treasure in ancient 
Etruscan tombs, which went on in Italy for centuries. 


"When one would find a treasure," the peasants told Le- 
land, "he must take the door of the house in which he 
dwells and carry it forth into the fields at night until 
he comes to a tree. Then he must wait till many birds 
fly over him, and when they come he must throw down 
the door, making a great noise. Then the birds in fear 
will speak with a human voice, and tell where the treas- 
ure is buried." 

Much of this tinctures the mental life of many un- 
educated persons to this day. They will tell you now 
at Rauen, in Germany, that a princess is entombed alive 
in the Markgrafenstein, and that she and her wealth 
can be released only by one who will go there on a 
Friday at midnight carrying a white woodpecker — 
which would seem to make an albino of that species 
well worth searching for! The woodpecker of old was 
a "lightning-bird" because, among other reasons, it was 
supposed to get fire by boring into wood, as did primi- 
tive savages by means of the fire-drill; and its red cap 
was not only a badge of its office, but a lightning-symbol 
in general. 

Let me illuminate this matter still more by quoting 
the comments of John Fiske 98 on the mythical concep- 
tions of this character that are so old, and so cherished 
among the unlearned: 

Among the birds enumerated by Kuhn [author of The 
Descent of Fire] and others as representing the storm-cloud, 
are likewise the wren or kinglet (French roitelet) ; the owl, 
sacred to Athenae; the cuckoo, stork and sparrow; and the 
red-breasted robin, whose name Robert was originally an 
epithet of the lightning-god Thor. In certain parts of France 
it is still believed that the robbing of a wren's nest will render 
the culprit liable to be struck by lightning. The same belief 
was formerly entertained in Teutonic countries with respect 
to the robin. . . . 


Now, as the raven or woodpecker, in the various myths of 
schamir, is the dark storm-cloud, so the rock-splitting worm, 
or plant or pebble is nothing more or less than the flash of 
lightning carried and dropped by the cloud . . . 

The persons who told these stories were not weaving in- 
genious allegories about thunder-storms, or giving utterance 
to superstitions of which the original meaning was forgotten. 
The old grannies who, along with a stoical indifference to the 
fate of quails and partridges, used to impress upon me the 
wickedness of killing robins, did not add that I should be 
struck by lightning if I failed to heed their admonitions. 
They had never heard that the robin was the bird of Thor: 
they merely rehearsed the remnant of the superstition which 
had survived to their own times, while the essential part of 
it had long since faded from recollection. The reason for 
regarding a robin's life as more sacred than a partridge's had 
been forgotten; but it left behind, as was natural, a vague 
recognition of that mythical sanctity. The primitive meaning 
of a myth fades away as inevitably as the primitive meaning 
of a word or phrase; and the rabbins which told of a worm 
which shattered rocks no more thought of the writhing thun- 
derbolts than the modern reader thinks of oyster-shells when 
he sees the word ostracism, or consciously breathes a prayer 
when he writes the phrase Good-bye. 


IT is not easy in preparing a book devoted mainly to 
fable and folklore to sort out material for a separate 
chapter on "legends/ ' A legend may be defined 
as a narrative of something thought of as having 
actually happened in connection with some real purpose 
or place, but which is unsupported by historical evi- 
dence. In many cases such narratives are quite in- 
credible, but even so they may have a historically illus- 
trative, a literary, or at least an amusing interest. 
Stories of a considerable number of well-known kinds 
of birds are in this way connected with actual persons, 
or with verifiable incidents of the past, and hence may 
be said to be "legends in an historical setting." A fair 
example of them is the incident of the Capitoline geese. 
Early in the third century before the Christian era 
a horde of Gaulish invaders under Brennus over-ran 
central Italy, and in 388 B. C. captured all of Rome it- 
self except the lofty citadel called the Capitol, where a 
Roman general officer, Marcus Manlius, held out with 
a small garrison on the point of starvation. One night 
the besieging Gauls, having discovered an unguarded 
by-path, crept up the rocky steep, intending the surprise 
and capture of the almost worn-out defenders. "But," 
says Plutarch, 94 in Dryden's translation, "there were 
sacred Geese kept near the Temple of Juno, which at 
other times were plentifully fed, but at this time, by 



reason of the Corn and all other Provisions were grown 
strait, their allowance was shorten'd and they themselves 
in a poor and lean condition. This Creature is by nature 
of quick sense, and apprehensive of the least noise; so 
that besides watchful through hunger, and restless, they 
immediately discovered the coming of the Gauls; so that 
running up and down, with their noise and cackling they 
raised the whole camp." 

Manlius sprang from sleep, aroused a body of soldiers 
and repelled the attack. It was the beginning of an 
ultimate victory over the enemy. Rome was saved, 
and in recognition of it Manilus was given the honorary 
title Capitolinus, and for a long time afterward the 
incident was celebrated annually by a procession to the 
Capitol in which a golden goose was carried. Livy also 
tells us in his history that the prototype of this golden 
symbol was a single sentinel goose never seen before, 
hence a divine aid sent to Rome for the purpose by the 
gods. It is interesting to note that 

These consecrated geese in orders 
That to the capitol were warders 
And being then upon patrol 
With noise alone beat off the Gaul, 

as Hudibras has it, were "sacred" to Juno, for this was 
before the time when she, having changed from the 
status of simple wife to Jupiter (and a model to human 
wives), had become the imperious and trouble-making 
empress of later days, and had discarded the motherly 
goose for the exotic, proud, and royally splendid pea- 
cock. This is a capital example of the adaptive char- 
acter of the assignment of birds to the various demigods 
of the Roman pantheon; and it suggests the query 


whether in some principal cases reverence for the bird 
itself did not precede the conception of the divinity it 
afterward typified. 

Another tale of birds acting as sentinels explains how 
the wren came to be so mortally hated by the Irish, whose 
cruel "hunting of the wren" is described in another 
chapter. According to Lady Wilde, 00 a student of Irish 
folklore, this hatred is owing to the fact that once when 
Irish troops were approaching to attack a part of 
Thomas Cromwell's army (about 1650) "wrens came 
and perched on the Irish drums, and by their tapping 
and noise aroused the English soldiers, who fell on the 
Irish troops and killed all of them." This is a variant 
of a legend far older than Cromwell's campaigning; 
and it is not the true explanation of the antipathy the 
cruder Irish and Manxmen still feel toward this innocent 
little songster, while at the same time they have a pecu- 
liar tenderness for the robin. 

A third parallel is found in the annoyance caused 
the Scottish Covenanters. Many a meeting of pious 
Presbyterians in some hidden, heathery glen of the misty 
hills was discovered and roughly dispersed "because of 
the hovering, bewailing plovers, fearful for their young, 
clamoring overhead." The poet Leyden alludes to the 
long-remembered grudge against this suspicious bird 
when, speaking of the religious refugees on the moors, 
he writes: 

The lapwing's clamorous whoop attends their flight, 
Pursues their steps where'er the wanderers go, 
Till the shrill scream betrays them to the foe. 

Returning to ancient history, two bird-stories of 
Alexander the Great are delightful as illustrating how 


an independent and masterful intellect, even in that early 
day above the Pagan superstitions of the time, might 
with ingenuity and boldness bend the sanctions of 
religion to his own ends without destroying them. The 
first one is an incident recorded of Alexander's cam- 
paign in Asia Minor in 334 B. C. His fleet was an- 
chored in the harbor of Miletus, and opposite it lay the 
fleet of the Persians. Alexander had no desire to disturb 
this situation, for he meant his army, not the navy, 
to do the work in view. One day an eagle, Jove's 
bird, was seen sitting on the shore behind the Mace- 
donian ships, and Parmenion, chief of staff, found in 
this fact convincing indication by the gods that victory 
was with the ships. Alexander pointed out that the 
eagle had perched on the land, not on the ships, giving 
thereby the evident intimation that it was only through 
the victory of the troops on land that the fleet could have 
value. As Alexander was commander-in-chief, this was 
evidently the orthodox interpretation. 

Two years later Alexander was one day laying out 
on its site the plan of his foreordained city of Alex- 
andria, in Egypt, and was marking the course of the 
proposed streets by sprinkling lines of flour in the lack 
of chalk-dust. 'While the king," says Plutarch, "was 
congratulating himself on his plan, on a sudden a count- 
less number of birds of various sorts flew over from 
the land and the lake in clouds, and settling on the spot 
in clouds devoured in a short time all the flour, so that 
Alexander was much disturbed in mind at the omen 
involved, till the augurs restored his confidence, telling 
him the city . . . was destined to be rich in its resources, 
and a feeder of nations of men." 

The straight face with which Plutarch 94 recites these 


and similar stones of hocus-pocus in the matter of in- 
convenient omens is delightful; but the faith of the 
common people was not so easily shaken. For example : 
When the Sicilian-Greek army of Agathocles, Tyrant of 
Syracuse in the third century, B. C, was facing near 
Times a more powerful Carthaginian force, Agathocles 
let loose a number of owls among his men, "who sud- 
denly took great courage as the birds sacred to Pallas 
settled blinking upon their helmets and shields" — and 
they routed the bigger enemy. That was true religious 
inspiration — as true as ever blazed in the heart of 
Christian crusader; but it was a sacrilegous trick on 
the part of Agathocles! 

Just across the strait from Sicily, at Regium (Reg- 
gio), was the home of the celebrated cranes of Ibycus. 
Ibycus, a local poet, was being murdered by robbers 
when he called on the cranes fluttering near by to give 
witness of his death. Later, the murderers were one 
day at the theatre, when they saw a flock of cranes, and 
in fright whispered to one another: "The cranes of 
Ibycus!" They were overheard, arrested and executed, 
whence the proverb "the cranes of Ibycus" to express 
crime coming unexpectedly to light. 

The Wonderful Magazine, an amazing periodical 
issued in London from 1793 to 1798, contained a story 
that in 1422 a "Roman" emperor besieging Zeta took all 
the sparrows his men could catch, and, tying lighted 
matches to their feet, let them go toward the town. 
But the citizens made a great noise, and the frightened 
sparrows flying back set the Roman camp on fire and 
so raised the siege. The reader may put his own esti- 
mate on this bit of historical lore; and may discover, 
if he can, where and what was Zeta. 


Arabs in Palestine tell how a bird was involved in 
David's sin of coveting Uriah's wife. David, they say, 
had shut himself up in a tower for meditation, when, 
happening to look up, he saw just outside the window 
a bird of amazing beauty — a pigeon whose plumage 
gleamed like gold and jewels. David threw some 
crumbs on the floor, whereupon the pigeon came in and 
picked them up, but eluded David's attempt to capture 
it. At last, to escape his efforts, it flew to the window 
and settled on one of the bars. He pursued, but it 
departed. It was then, as David followed the bright 
creature with longing eyes, that he caught sight of 
Madame Uriah in the bath — and was done for ! 

Among other excellent things in Hanauer's Tales 
from Palestine 43 is the following report of Solomon's 
contest with a dove: 

"In the southern wall of the Kubbet 'es-Sakhra [at 
Jerusalem], the mosque that now stands near the site 
of the ancient Temple, on the right side of the door as 
one enters there is a gray slab framed in marble of a 
dark color. It contains a figure, formed by natural 
veins in the stone, which is distinct enough to be taken 
for a picture of two doves perched facing each other on 
the edge of a vase. With this picture is connected a 
tale . . . 

"The great king Solomon understood the language 
of beasts, birds and fishes, and, when he had occasion 
to do so, would converse with all of them. One day, 
soon after he had completed the Temple, as he was 
standing at a window of the royal palace, he overheard 
a conversation between a pair of birds that were sit- 
ting on the housetop. Presently the male, who was 
evidently trying to impress the female with his im- 


portance, exclaimed : 'Solomon is a conceited fool ! Why 
should he be so vain of this pile of buildings he has 
raised? I, if I wished, could kick them all over in a 
few minutes/ 

"The king, greatly enraged by this pompous speech, 
summoned the offender into his presence and demanded 
what he meant by such an outrageous boast. 'Your 
majesty,' replied the bird, 'will, I am sure, forgive my 
audacity, when I explain that I was in the company 
of a female; since your majesty doubtless knows from 
experience that in such circumstances the temptation to 
boast is almost irresistible.' The monarch, forgetting 
his anger in his amusement, said with a smile: 'Go your 
way this time, but see that you do not repeat the offence,' 
and the bird, after a profound obeisance, flew away to 
rejoin his mate. 

"He had hardly alighted before the female, unable to 
repress her curiosity, eagerly inquired why he had been 
summoned to the palace. 'Oh,' said the impudent 
boaster, 'the king heard me tell you that if I chose I 
could kick down all his buildings in no time, and he 
sent for me to beg me not to do it." 

"Solomon, who, of course, heard this remark also, was 
so indignant at the incorrigible vanity of its author that 
he at once turned both birds into stone. They remain 
to this day as a reminder of the saying: 'The peace of 
mankind consists in guarding the tongue.' ' 

But the stories of Solomon and his bird-friends are 
many. He was evidently a jolly old soul, and tradition 
says that when he travelled across the desert clouds of 
birds formed a canopy to protect him from the sun. 
The hoopoe, a high-crested bird that figures largely in 
other fanciful tales of the East, tells wise Solomonic 


stories, and is still regarded by Saharan nomads as pos- 
sessed of peculiar virtues. The great Jewish king, whose 
reality is almost hidden under the legendary mantle, is 
said to have chosen the hoopoe, the cock and the pewit: 
the first because of its wit, the second in admiration of 
its cry, and the third because, says Hanauer, it can 
see through the earth, and could tell him where foun- 
tains of water could be found. The last preference is 
natural in an arid region, the pewit being a water-bird, 
the familiar lapwing-plover; and as it annually migrates 
through Palestine into Ethiopia it is reasonable that it 
should be fabled to be the means of bringing Solomon 
and the Queen of Sheba together, as is described in 
Chapter XXVII of the Koran. It should be noted that 
all of these birds are crested. 

The veneration given to doves by the Mohammedans 
at Mecca is accounted for elsewhere; but swallows are 
held in almost equal reverence by both officials and pil- 
grims at that great shrine of Islam, and build their 
nests in the harain. This respect is explained by 
Keane 14 as the result of a belief that they were the 
instruments by which Mecca was saved from the Abys- 
sinian (Christian) army that is known to have invaded 
Arabia in the year of Mohammed's birth, and to have 
been disastrously expelled. The tradition is that God 
sent flocks of swallows, every bird carrying three small 
stones in its beak and two in its claws, which were 
dropped on the heads of the Abyssinians, and mirac- 
ulously penetrated the bodies of men and elephants 
until only one of the invaders was left alive. He fled back 
to his country, and had just finished telling of the dis- 
aster to the king when one of the swallows, which had 
followed him from Mecca, dropped its pebble and killed 


him too. The kernel of this dramatic story is in the 
nineteenth section of the Koran: 50 "And he sent against 
them birds in flocks (ababils), claystones did he hurl 
down at them." The historical explanation is that the 
Abyssinian invaders were destroyed by small-pox, the 
pustules of which are called in Arabic by a word mean- 
ing "small stones." 

Of a piece with these traditions and the Rabbinical 
tales of the Jews are the monkish legends preserved in 
early British chronicles, such as that by the Venerable 
Bede or by William of Malmesbury. The orthodox as 
well as dissenters had trouble with birds. Among the 
traditions of the celebrated Scotch-Irish missionary 
Columba (Latinized from his baptismal name Colum, 
"dove") is one that once in his ardent youth Colum was 
trying to make by stealth in a church a copy of the 
psalter in possession of the selfish king, Finian of Done- 
gal, who had refused the young enthusiast that privilege. 
A meddlesome stork, confined within the church, in- 
formed the sacristan, and Colum was arrested. Never- 
theless by divine aid he got his copy, helpful to him 
afterward in his beneficent work in the Scottish high- 

One of the prettiest of these old stories is that of 
St. Kenneth and the gulls. 22 One day about A. D. 550 
the blackheaded gulls, flying as usual along the coast of 
Wales, and scanning the sea sharply for food or any- 
thing else interesting to a gull, found floating in a 
coracle — a round, wicker work canoe — a human baby a 
day or two old, contentedly asleep on a pallet made of 
a folded purple cloth. Several gulls seized the corners 
of this cloth and so carried the child to the ledge of 
the Welsh cliff where they nested, plucked feathers from 


their breasts to make a soft bed, laid the baby on it, 
then hastened to fly inland and bring a doe to provide 
it with milk, for which an angel offered a brazen bell 
as a cup. There the blessed waif lived for several 
months; but one day, in the absence of all the gulls, 
a shepherd discovered the infant and took him down 
to his hut and his kind wife. The gulls, returning from 
the sea, heard of this act from the doe. They at once 
rushed to the shepherd's cottage, again lifted the babe 
by the corners of its purple blanket, and bore him back 
to the ledge of their sea-fronting crag. There he stayed 
until he had grown to manhood — a man full of laughter 
and singing and kind words; and the Welsh peasants 
of the Gower Peninsula revered him and called him 
Saint Kenneth. 

Somewhat similar is the legendary history of Coe- 
magen, or Saint Kelvin, an Irish monk of the eighth 
century, into whose charge was committed the infant 
son of Colman, a Leinster noble. "Coemagen fed the 
child on the milk of a doe which came from the forest 
to the door of his cell. A raven was wont, after the 
doe had been milked, to perch on the bowl, and some- 
times would upset it. 'Bad luck to thee !' exclaimed the 
saint. When I am dead there will be a famous wake, 
but no scraps for thee and thy clan!' When very old 
St. Kelvin moved into a forest hermitage, where the 
birds came to him as companions. Once, while pray- 
ing, his supplicating palms outstretched, a blackbird 
(thrush) dropped her eggs into the hollow of his hands, 
and he held his arms rigid until the chicks hatched. " 

A curious parallel to the last incident is quoted by the 
Baroness Martinengo-Caesaresco 20 "from an industrious 
translator" of the book Tatchi-Lou-Lun, describing how 


when a bird laid her eggs on the head of the first 
Buddha, which she mistook for the branch of a tree, 
he plunged himself into a trance so as not to move 
until the eggs had hatched and the young were flown. 
St. Bede the younger, a contemporary of Coemagen, 
had a dove that used to come at his call; and an Irish 
monk, Comgall, would bid the swans near his residence 
come and cluster devotionally around his feet. Many 
saints, the legends declare, had authority over birds, 
and one, St. Millburg, abbess of Wenlock, in Shrop- 
shire, kept them out of the farmers' crops by telling 
them it was naughty to despoil the grain. Of old, ac- 
cording to Canon Kingsley, St. Guthlac in Crowland 
said, as the swallows sat upon his knee, "He who leads 
his life according to the will of God, to him will the 
wild deer and the wild birds draw more near." 

The religious "hermits," so prevalent at that period, 
were men who chose a more or less solitary life, quite 
as much, I suspect, on account of their love of nature 
as from purely devotional motives, and this was par- 
ticularly true of those in Great Britain, exhibiting the 
characteristic British fondness for animal life. There 
was an early St. Bartholomew, for example, who in the 
sixth century or thereabout dwelt in seclusion on one 
of the Fame Islands off the northeastern coast of Eng- 
land, and made friends of the gulls and cormorants of 
the place. One of these he had tamed to eat out of his 
hand, and once, when Bartholomew was away fishing, 
a hawk pursued this poor bird into the chapel and killed 
it. Brother Bartholomew came in and found the hawk 
there with bloody talons and a shame-faced appearance. 
He caught it, kept it two days without food to punish 
it, then let it go. At another time, as he sat by the 


shore, a cormorant approached and pulled at his skirt, 
then led him to where one of its young had fallen into 
a crevice of the rocks whence the good man rescued it. 

One of these rocky islets in the North Sea became 
so famous during the next century that it has been 
known ever since as Holy Isle, and the ruins of its 
monastery and cathedral still remain and may be seen 
from the railway train as it passes along the brink of 
the lofty coast a little south of Berwick-on-Tweed. This 
was the seat of the renowned Bishop Cuthbert of whom 
many quaint stories are told, apart from the record of 
his religious work. They attribute to his influence the 
extraordinary gentleness and familiarity characteristic 
of the eider duck, which is known to this day in North- 
umbria as Cuthbert's bird. It was he, according to a 
narrative of a monk of the 13th century, who inspired 
these ducks with a hereditary trust in mankind by tak- 
ing them as companions of his solitude when for several 
years he resided alone on Lindisfarne. There is good 
reason to accept this and similar traditions as largely 
true, for a like ability in "gentling" birds and other 
wild animals is manifested today by some persons of a 
calm and kindly sort. 

Early in the eighth century a monk of intensely 
ascetic disposition, named Guthlac, retired to a solitary 
hermitage on an island in the dismal morasses of Lin- 
colnshire, which afterward, if not then, was called Croy- 
land or Crowland. He was sorely tempted by the Devil 
we are informed, and had many battles with "demons" 
— native British refugees hiding in the fens; but in the 
intervals of his fasting and fighting he got acquainted 
with the wild creatures about him. "The ravens, the 
beasts and the fishes," says the record, "came to obey 


him. Once a venerable brother named Wilfred visited 
him, and . . . suddenly two swallows came flying in . . . 
and often they sat fearlessly on the shoulders of the 
holy man Guthlac, and then lifted up their song, and 
afterward they sat on his bosom and on his arms and 
his knees. . . . When Guthlac died angelic songs were 
heard in the sky, and all the air had a wondrous odor 
of exceeding sweetness." 

St. Kentigern, when a schoolboy, was wrongly ac- 
cused of having twisted off the head of his master's 
pet robin. He proved his innocence by putting the head 
and body together, whereupon the robin came to life 
and attended Kentigern until he became a great and 
good man. His master was St. Servan, and the robin 
was one that used to eat from his hand and perch on 
his shoulder, where it would twitter whenever Servan 
chanted the Psalms. 

Here we encounter the mystical kind of story with 
which those old chroniclers like to embellish their biog- 
raphies of holy men, and there was no limit to their 
credulity. Such is the tale of Carilef, a French would- 
be hermit of Menat, in Auvergne, who thought he was 
guided to set up a religious station because a wren had 
laid an egg in a hood that he had left hanging on a 
bush — a very wrenlike proceeding; and that was the 
foundation of the monastery about which the city of 
St. Calais grew in later times. Several other incidents 
of this kind are on record, showing that the value placed 
on any action by a bird that could be construed as a 
divine message. It is written that Editha, one of the 
early queens of England, persuaded her husband to 
found a religious house near Oxford on account of the 
omens she interpreted from the voice and actions of a 


certain magpie. Similarly the site for the abbey of 
Thierry, near Rheims, in France, was indicated to St. 
Theodoric, in the sixth century, by a white eagle cir- 
cling around the top of the hill on which it subsequently 
was erected; and this miraculous eagle was seen year 
after year in the sky above it. 

About that time Kenelm, son and heir of Kenulph, 
king of Wessex, was seven years old. His sister, who 
wanted to succeed to the throne in his place, procured 
his murder. The instant this was accomplished the fact 
was notified to the Pope, according to the Chronicles 
of Roger de Wendover, by a white dove that alighted 
on the altar of St. Peter's, bearing in its beak a scroll 
on which was written 

In Clent cow-pasture, under a thorn, 
Of head bereft lies Kenelm, king-born. 

The Pope sent word to England, the body was found in 
a thicket over which hung a pillar of supernal light, and 
was taken to Winchelcumb, in Gloucestershire, for 
burial; and at the spot near Halesowen, in Shropshire, 
where he was killed, Kenelm's Chapel was erected. 

But the most mystical legend in which birds are a 
part, is one familiar in Brittany. It is related of St. 
Leonore, a Welsh missionary who went to Brittany in 
the sixth century, to whom many fabulous powers and 
deeds are attributed, the most comprehensible of which 
Baring-Gould has put into verse. Leonore, with a band 
of followers, had decided to settle in Brittany on a 
desolate moor; but they had forgotten to bring any 
seed-wheat, and were alarmed. 


Said the abbot, "God will help us 

In this hour of bitter loss." 
Then one spied a little redbreast 

Sitting on a wayside cross. 

Doubtless came the bird in answer 

To the words the monk did speak, 
For a heavy wheat-ear dangled 

From the robin's polished beak. 

Then the brothers, as he dropped it 

Picked it up and careful sowed; 
And abundantly in autumn 

Reaped the harvest where they strewed. 21 

Greater poets than Baring-Gould or even Bishop 
Trench have found literary material in these monastic 
tales. Witness Longfellow's Golden Legend, where he 
sings of good St. Felix, the Burgundian missionary who 
crossed the Channel, and in A. D. 604 converted to 
Christianity the wild king of the East Saxons; and who 
listened to the singing of a milk-white bird for a hun- 
dred years, although it had seemed to him but an hour, 
so enchanted was he with the music. No doubt myth- 
mongers might discourse very scientifically on this and 
some other of these episodes in the penumbra of his- 
tory, but we will leave the pleasure of it to them. 

None of these traditions of early bird-lovers and 
teachers of kindness are so pleasant as are those inspired 
by the gracious life of St. Francis. 22 A familiar classic 
is his sermon to the birds when 

Around Assisi's convent gate 
The birds, God's poor who cannot wait, 
From moor and mere and darksome wood 
Came flocking for their dole of food. 


One of the prettiest Franciscan stories is that of the 
saint and the nightingale as presented by Mrs. Jamie- 
son; 105 and, by the way, antiphonal singing with birds 
is related of several holy men and women of old : 

As he was sitting with his disciple Leo, he felt himself 
penetrated with joy and consolation by the song of the night- 
ingale . . . and Francis began to sing, and when he stopped the 
nightingale took up the strain; and thus they sang alternately 
until the night was far advanced and Francis was obliged to 
stop for his voice failed. Then he confessed that the little 
bird had vanquished him. He called it to him, thanked it for 
its song, and gave it the remainder of his bread; and having 
bestowed his blessing upon it the creature flew away. 

Longfellow has preserved in melodious verse that 
legend of the Spanish Charles V and the swallow that 
chose his tent as a site for its nest at a time when the 
emperor — 

I forget in what campaign, 
Long besieged in mud and rain 
Some old frontier town of Flanders. 

Yes, it was a swallow's nest, 

Built of clay and hair of horse's 
Mane, or tail, or dragoon's crest, 
Found on hedgerows east and west 
After skirmish of the forces. 

The headquarters staff were scandalized by the bird's 
impudence, but Charles forbade their malice: 

"Let no hand the bird molest," 

Said he solemnly, "nor hurt her!" 
Adding then, by way of jest, 
"Golondrina is my guest, 

'Tis the wife, of some deserter !" 


So unharmed and unafraid 

Sat the swallow still and brooded, 
Till the constant cannonade 
Through the walls a breach had made, 

And the siege was thus concluded. 

Then the army elsewhere bent 

Struck the tents as if disbanding, 
Only not the Emperor's tent. 
For he ordered as he went, 

Very curtly, "Leave it standing." 

So it stood there all alone, 

Loosely flapping, torn and tattered, 
Till the brood was fledged and flown, 
Swinging o'er those walks of stone 

Which the cannon-shot had shattered. 


NOT many of the stories about birds now or for- 
merly current among the American aborigines 
are of a pleasing character. They are fantastic 
myths for the most part, as appears from many of the 
incidents given elsewhere in this book; and often they 
are so wildly improbable, incoherent, and unbirdlike as 
to disgust rather than interest us. That is partly owing, 
no doubt, to our difficulty in taking the native point of 
view, and our ignorance of the significance the half- 
animal, half-human characters in the tales have to the 
redmen, with whom, in most cases, the startling narra- 
tives pass for veritable tribal history. Their stories are 
as foreign to our minds as is their "tum-tum" music 
to our ears. Now and then, however, we come across 
an understanding and pleasing legend, of purely native 
origin, and touched with poetic feeling. 

A favorite story among the central Eskimos, for in- 
stance, is that of their race-mother Sedna, who was the 
daughter of a chief, and was wooed by a fulmar (a 
kind of northern petrel) who promised her, if she would 
marry him, a delightful life in his distant home. So 
she went away with him. But she had been ruefully 
deceived, and was cruelly mistreated. A year later her 
father went to pay her a visit; and discovering her 
misery he killed her husband and took his repentant 
daughter home. The other fulmars in the village fol- 



lowed them, mourning and crying for their murdered 
fellow, and fulmars continue to utter doleful cries to 
this day. 

Another Eskimo tale relates that a loon told a poor 
blind boy that he could cure him of his affliction. So 
the boy crept after the bird to a lake, where the loon 
took him and dived with him into the water. Three 
times they repeated their submergence, the last time 
staying a long time under the water, but when the boy 
came to the surface after the third diving he had good 
eyesight. This seems one of the rare examples of a 
tale told simply for its own sake, and free of any eso- 
teric significance. 

A very pretty legend, current among the Eskimos of 
western Alaska, has been preserved for us by Edward 
W. Nelson, 101 who spent several years, late in the 
19th century, in studying the ornithology and eth- 
nology of the Bering Sea region. It relates to the red- 
polls, the most abundant and entertaining land-birds of 
Alaska, where it would be a surprisingly hard heart that 
was not touched by their companionship as winter closes 
down on a dreary landscape of snow-drifts. Let me 
quote Mr. Nelson's words: 

At this season the stars seem each to hang from the firma- 
ment by an invisible cord, and twinkle clear and bright over- 
head. The sharp, querulous yelp of the white fox alone breaks 
the intense stillness. A white, frosty fog hangs in the air — 
the chilled breath of nature — which falls silently to the ground 
in the lovely crystal handiwork of northern genii. In the 
north a pale auroral arch moves its mysterious banners, and 
the rounding bosom of the earth, chill under its white mantle, 
looks dreary and sad. After such a night the sun seems to 
creep reluctantly above the horizon, as though loath to face 
the bitter cold. The smoke rises slowly and heavily in the 
fixed atmosphere, and warm rooms are doubly appreciated. 


Soon small troops of these little redpolls come . . . flitting 
about the houses on all sides, examining the bare spots on the 
ground, searching the old weeds and fences, clinging to the 
eaves, and even coming to the window-sills, whence they peer 
saucily in, making themselves continually at home, and re- 
ceiving a hearty welcome for their cheering presence. The 
breast is now a beautiful peach-blossom pink, and the crown 
shining scarlet. How this bird came to bear these beautiful 
colors is told in one of the Indian myths . . . which begins 

Very long ago the whole of mankind was living in cheer- 
less obscurity. Endless night hid the face of the world, and 
men were without the power of making a fire, as all the fire 
of the world was in the possession of a ferocious bear living 
in a far-off country to the north. The bear guarded his charge 
with unceasing vigilance, and so frightful was his appearance 
that no man dared attempt to obtain any of the precious sub- 
stance. While the poor Indians were sorrowing over their 
misfortunes the redpoll, which at that time was a plain little 
wood-sparrow, dressed in ordinary dull brown, heard their 
plaint — for in those days men and beasts understood one 
another, — and his heart was touched. He prepared himself 
for a long journey and set out toward the lodge of the cruel 
bear. After many adventures ... he reached the place, and 
by a successful ruse stole a living ember from the perpetual 
fire which glowed close under the breast of the savage guar- 
dian, and flew away back with it in his beak. The glow of 
the coal was reflected from his breast and crown, while his 
forehead became slightly burned. Far away he flew, and 
finally arrived safely at the home of mankind, and was re- 
ceived with great rejoicing. 

He gave the fire to the grateful people and told them to 
guard it well ; and as he did so they noticed the rich glow on 
his breast and brow, and said: "Kind bird, wear forever that 
beautiful mark as a memento of what you have done for us;" 
and to this day the redpoll wears this badge in proof of the 
legend, as all may see, and mankind has ever since had fire. 

One might gather a considerable collection of his- 
torical anecdotes relating to birds that in one way or 
another aided the Indians of old to obtain or to preserve 
fire, and some of them are noted incidentally elsewhere 


in this volume; but few are as poetic and entertaining 
as Mr. Nelson's contribution. 

The late Charles G. Leland found among the Algon- 
kins of Maine and eastward a great number of tales 
that he put into his books. One or two of them are 
about birds, and these he threw into verse and pub- 
lished them in a volume entitled Kuloskap the Master.^ 
The longest and most romantic of these is the love- 
story of the Leaf for the Red Bird (scarlet tanager), 
quoted in part below: 

In the earliest time on the greatest mountain 
Lived merry Mipis, the little leaf . . . 
Listens all day to the birds and the breezes, 
And goes to sleep to the song of the owl. 

Merry Mipis on a bright May morning 

Was stretching himself in the warm sunshine 

When he heard afar a wonderful music, 

A sound like a flute and the voice of a maiden, 

Rippling melodies melting in one. 

Never before had he heard such singing. 

Then looking up he beheld before him 

A beautiful merry little bird-girl, 

Dressed in garments of brilliant scarlet, 

Just like his own in the Indian summer. 

"O fairest of small birds," said merry Mipis, 

"Who are you, and what is your name?" 

Thus she answered: "I am Squ'tes, 

The Little Fire. . . . 

I have lived in the deep green forest, 

Even as you have for many ages, 

Singing my songs to K'musom'n, 

Unto our Father the mighty mountain; 

And, because he well loved my music, 

For a reward he sent me hither 

To seek a youth whose name is Mipis, 

Whom he wills that I should wed." 

This unexpected and rather unmaidenly avowal rather 


startled Mipis, and made him suspicious of some trick- 
ery, despite the attraction of her charm; but Squ'tes, 
"never heeding what the leaf thought," began again — 

Pouring out in the pleasant sunshine 
Her morning song. As Mipis listened 
To the melodious trill he melted; 
For the sweet tune filled all the forest, 
Every leaf on the tree was listening. . . . 
And as the music grew tender and stronger, 
And as in one long soft note it ended, 
Little Leaf said to her: "Be my own." 
So in the greenwood they lived together. 

One day both go to the Mountain and thank him for 
their happiness ; and in the course of the visit the grand- 
sire warns them not to go away from the Mountain, 
for dangers fill the outside world, thus: 

The little Indian boy Monimquess, 

Who, armed with a terrible bow and arrows, 

Shoots all of the little birds of the forest; 

and — 

Aplasemwesit, the Little Whirlwind, 
Who never rests. He is always trying 
To blow the leaves away from the branches. 

So they built their nest on the great tree that grew 
"in the safest place in all the mountain," and for a time 
continued in bliss ; but Mipis could see from their lofty 
home a far, beautiful country, and wanted to visit it. 
So Red Bird took the discontented Little Leaf in her bill 
and bore him away into the delightful lowland, where 
again they built a home ; but here the Indian boy heard 
the wonderful singing, and shot the singer, and Little 
Whirlwind seized Mipis and took him to his grandsire, 
the Storm, who resolved to keep Mipis as a prisoner. 


That night the Mountain dreamed of this, and sent his 
son to demand Mipis, and the Storm gave him up, so 
that soon Little Leaf was back on his safe mountain- 
tree — but he lived in lonely grief. 

His life was gone with the Little Fire, 
And the fire of his life was all in ashes. 

How then had it fared with the lost Red Bird ? When 
she fell under the boy's arrow she was not killed but 
sorely wounded ; and when the young Indian carried her 
home, very proud of his prize, his grandsire said truly 
that the bird must be kept captive. Red Bird recovered 
rapidly, and one morning Monimquess was dismayed 
to hear her singing as loudly as possible, "like a brook 
to sunshine," as he thought, for he knew she was trying 
to make herself heard by the Mountain, and that if she 
succeeded destruction would be hurled upon the wig- 
wam. At last, wearied with anxious thinking — 

Down by the fire he lay on a bearskin 

Smoking himself into silent sleep. 

The door was closed, nor was there a crevice 

Through which the Red Bird could creep to freedom, 

When all at once she thought of the opening 

Through which the smoke from the fire ascended, 

Ever upward so densely pouring 

Nobody dreamed she would dare to pass it. 

As the head of Monimquess drooped on his shoulder. . . . 

Softly the Red Bird rose, and taking 

A birchen bucket filled it with water. 

Dipping her wing in the water she sprayed it 

Little by little upon the fire. 

Little by little the fire, like Monimquess, 

Sank to sleep, and the bright red flame 

Lay down to rest in the dull gray ashes. 

Out of the smoke-hole, in careful silence, 

Flitted Squ'tes. . . . 


So the lovers were reunited. Then 

. . . Squ'tes and Mipis 

Lived all the summer upon the mountain, 

Sung in its shadows and shone in the sunshine. 

Still as of yore they are singing and shining; 

And so it will be while the mountain is there. 

A very curious feature of this delicate romance, which 
reminds one of the love-story of the Nightingale and 
the Rose, is the transposition of sex. To our minds 
it would seem natural that the bird, as the most active 
of the two characters, should take the male part and 
the leaf the other; and it is false to fact that Red Bird, 
as a female, should sing. The Indians must have known 
that this was unnatural, yet their poetic sense arranged 
it otherwise, just as the poets have pictured the nightin- 
gale pressing her breast against a thorn, yet singing, 
as only male birds do ! 

Elsewhere I have shown how important a part the 
loon plays in the mythology and fireside tales of the 
redmen of the Northeastern region of our country and 
that of the Great Lakes. To the Algonkins of Maine 
and eastward this bird was the messenger of their great 
hero Glooscap, or Kuloskap, as Leland spells it with 
careful accuracy when writing in the language of the 
Pasamaquoddies ; and he has told in verse the story of 
how this service was accepted by the willing bird. One 
day when Kuloskap was pursuing the gigantic magi- 
cian, Winpe, his enemy, a flock of loons came circling 
near him, and to his question to their leader: "What is 
thy will, O Kwimu?" the loon replied: "I fain would be 
thy servant, thy servant and thy friend." Then the 
Master taught the loons a cry, a strange, prolonged cry, 
like the howl of a dog when he calls to the moon, or 


when, far away in the forest, he seeks to find his master ; 
and he instructed them to utter this weird summons 
whenever they required him. 

Now it came to pass long after, the Master in Uktakumkuk 
(The which is Newfoundland) came to an Indian village, 
And all who dwelt therein were Kwimuuk, who had been 
Loons in the time before. And now they were very glad 
As men to see once more the Master, who had blessed them 
When they were only birds. Therefore he made them his 

Also his messengers. Hence comes that in all the stories 
Which are told of the mighty Master the loons are ever his 

friends ; 
And the Indians, when they hear the cry of the loons, exclaim : 
"Kimu elkomtuejul Kuloskapul"— the Loon is calling 
Kuloskap, the Master. 

Leith Adams 103 says: "Stories are told" — among the 
Micmacs in New Brunswick — "how the snowy owl still 
laments the Golden Age when man and all animals lived 
in perfect amity until it came to pass that they began 
to quarrel; when the great Glooscap, or Gotescarp, got 
disgusted and sailed across the seas to return when 
they made up their differences. So every night the owl 
repeats to this day his Koo, koo, skoos. 'Oh, I am sorry, 
Oh, I am sorry.' " 

A quaint little legend comes from the Tillamooks, 
whose home was formerly on the Oregon coast, where 
the tides do not rise very much. In the beginning of 
the world, it teaches, the crow had a voice like that of 
the thunder-bird, and the thunder-bird the voice of a 
crow. The latter proposed to exchange voices. The 
crow agreed to this, but demanded that in return the 
thunder-bird give her low water along the seashore, 
so that she might more easily gather the clams and other 
mussels, which was a part of a Tillamook woman's daily 


task. The thunder-bird therefore made the water draw 
back a very long distance. But when the crow went out 
on the waste of sea-bottom she saw so many marine 
monsters that she was frightened, and begged the thun- 
der-bird not to make the waters recede so far; and that 
is the reason that now but little ocean-bottom is ex- 
posed at ebb tide on the Oregon coast. 

The Gualala Indians were a tribe of the great Porno 
family that half a century ago dwelt happily in the 
northwestern corner of Sonoma County, California, and 
their staple food was the flour of crushed and filtered 
acorns of several kinds of oaks. In their country, as 
elsewhere in that State, the California woodpecker 
(Melanerpes) is a very common bird, which has the 
habit of drilling numerous small holes in pines and 
other soft-wooded trees, and fixing in each an acorn — 
a method of storing its favorite food against a time of 
famine. The Indians understood this very well, and 
in times of scarcity of food in camp they would cut 
down the small trees and climb the big ones, and rob 
the cupboards of the far more provident birds. "And 
here," says Powers, 19 "I will make mention of a kind 
of sylvan barometer. . . . These acorns are stored away 
before the rainy season sets in, sometimes to the amount 
of a half-bushel, and when they are wetted they pres- 
ently swell and start out a little. So always, when a 
rainstorm is brewing, the woodpeckers fall to work 
with great industry a day or two in advance and ham- 
mer them in all tight. During the winter, therefore, 
whenever the woods are heard rattling with the pecking 
of these busy little commissary-clerks heading up their 
barrels of worms, the Indian knows a rainstorm is cer- 
tain to follow." 


The Chippeway Indians, as Schoolcraft noted, account 
for the friendly spirit of the robin by relating that he 
was once a young brave whose father set him a task 
too cruel for his strength, and made him starve too long 
when he had reached man's estate and had to go through 
the customary initiation-ceremonies. He turned into a 
robin, and said to his father: "I shall always be the 
friend of man and keep near their dwellings. I could 
not gratify your pride as a warrior, but I will cheer 
you by songs." 

This pretty fiction is noteworthy, when one recalls 
the many instances in Greek and European myths and 
poetry of men and women transforming themselves into 

The Cherokees had an interesting story about the 
wren, always a busybody. She gets up early in the 
morning, they say, pries into everything, and goes around 
to every lodge in the settlement to get news for the 
birds' council. When a new baby is born she finds out 
whether it is a boy or a girl, and reports to the council. 
If it is a boy the birds sing in mournful chorus : "Alas ! 
The whistle of the arrow! My shins will burn," for 
the birds know that when the boy grows older he will 
hunt them with his blowgun and arrows, and roast 
them on a stick. But if the baby is a girl they are 
glad, and sing: "Thanks! The sound of the pestle! 
At her home I shall surely be able to scratch where she 
sweeps," because they know that after a while they will 
be able to pick up stray grains where she beats the corn 
into meal. 104 

In the myths or folklore of the Pawnees a character 
in several tales, as related by Grinnell, 105 is a little bird, 
smaller than a pigeon. "Its back is blue, but its breast 


white, and its head is spotted. It flies swiftly over the 
water, and when it sees a fish it dives down into the 
water to catch it. This bird is a servant or a messenger 
for the Nahurac." The Nahurac are an assemblage of 
imaginary animals by whom many wonderful things are 
done ; and it communicates to living men their wishes or 
orders, and acts as a guide when men are summoned to 
come or go somewhere. But this is perilously near the 
purely mythical, and it is mentioned only as an example 
of the widespread conception of birds as messengers 
and interpreters. 

I hope I may be pardoned if I add to this group of 
Indian bird-stories one or two told in the Negro cabins 
of North Carolina, and probably elsewhere, and written 
down in Volume XI of the American Folk-Lore 
Journal-, among many other tales of the out-door crea- 
tures to which the rural darkies like to attribute human 
attributes, and to use as puppets in their little comedies 
of animal life, which are likely to be keen satires on 
humanity. The one to be quoted is a parable of how 
Ann Nancy (a spider) got caught in a tight place by 
Mr. Turkey Buzzard, and how she escaped, for Mr. 
Buzzard was going to eat her. 

"But," says the narrator, "she beg so hard, and com- 
pliment his fine presence, and compare how he sail in 
the clouds while she 'bliged to crawl in the dirt, till he 
that proud ful and set up he feel mighty pardonin' spirit, 
and he let her go." 

Ann Nancy, however, did not enjoy the incident, and 
"jess study constant how she gwine get the best of 
every creeter, ,, and particularly of the tormenting bird. 

"She knew Mr. Buzzard's weak point am he stomach, 
and one day she make it out dat she make a dining, 


and Vite Mr. Buzzard an' Miss Buzzard an' de chillens. 
Ann Nancy she know how to set out a dinin' fo' sure, 
and when dey all got sot down to the table, an' she 
mighty busy passin' the hot coffee to Mr. Buzzard an' 
the little Buzzards, she have a powerful big pot o' 
scalding water ready, and she lip it all over poor or 
Mr. Buzzard's haid, and the po' ol' man done been 
baldhaided from that day. 

"An' he don't forget on Ann Nancy, 'cause you 'serve 
she de onliest creeter on the topside the earth what Mr. 
Buzzard don't eat." 


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(Boston, 1900.) Consult also "Lives" of St. Francis of 



23. Ward, William Hayes. Seal Wonders of Western Asia. 

(Carnegie Institution, No. 100.) 

24. Bayley, Harold. The Lost Language of Symbolism. 

(London, 1913.) 

25. Dalton, Edward T. Byzantine Art and Architecture. 

26. Sacred Books of the East, Pahlavi Texts, Vol. XXIV, 112. 

27. Brinton, Daniel G. Myths of the New World. (New 

York, 1868.) See also his American Hero Myths (1882). 

28. Oswald, Felix. Zoological Sketches. (Philadelphia, 1883.) 

29. Rothery, G. C. A B C of Heraldry. (Philadelphia, 191 5.) 

30. Mallet, Paul H. Northern Antiquities. (London, 1890.) 

31. Grosvenor, Edwin A. Constantinople. (Boston, 1895.) 

32. Goldsmith, Oliver. A History of the Earth and 

Animated Nature. (London, 1774.) 

33. Browne, Sir Thomas. Inquiry into Vulgar Errors. 

(London, 1846.) 

34. Brewer, E. C. Handbooks, particularly "Phrase and Fable." 

35. Wallace, Alfred Russel. The Malay Archipelago. 

(New York, 1869.) 

36. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. (London, 1884.) 

37. Cook, Arthur B. Zeus. (Cambridge, Eng., 1914.) 

38. Hulme, F. Edward. Natural History Lore and Legend. 

(London, 1895.) 

39. Walker, Margaret C. Bird Legends and Life. (New 

York, 1908.) 

40. Walton, Isaak. The Compleat Angler. (London, 100th 

Edition, 1888.) 

41. Aristotle. History of Animals. (London, Bohn, 1862.) 

42. Harting, J. E. The Ornithology of Shakespeare. 

(London, 1871). Compare Thiselton-Dyer's Folk Lore 
of Shakespeare. 

43. Hanauer, J. E. Tales Told in Palestine. (Cincinnati, 


44. Hudson, W. H. Birds of La Plata. (London, 1920.) 

45. White, Gilbert. Natural History of Selborne. 

46. Wilson, Alexander. North American Ornithology. 

(New York, 1853.) 

47. Swann, H. Kirke. A Dictionary of English and Folk 

Names of British Birds. (London, 1913.) It contains 
a useful bibliography, and quotes largely from the Rev. 
C. Swainson's Folk Lore and Provincial Names of 
British Birds (English Dialect Society, 1886.) 


48. St. Johnston, Lt.-Col. T. R. The Islanders of the 

Pacific. (London, 1921.) 

49. Lyly, John. Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit. (London, 


50. Coues, Elliott. Birds of the Northwest. (Washington, 


51. Cruden, Alexander. A Complete Concordance to the 

Holy Scriptures. 

52. Laufer, Berthold. Bird Divination among the 

Thibetans. (Leiden, 1914.) 

53. Miller, Leo. In the Wilds of South America. (New 

York, 1918.) 

54. Gubernatis, Angelo de. Zoological Mythology. (New 

York, 1872.) 

55. Newton, Alfred. Dictionary of Birds. (London, 1896.) 

56. Conway, Moncure D. The Wandering Jew. (New York, 

1881.) See also his Solomonic Literature (Chicago, 

57. Watters, John J. The Birds of Ireland. (Dublin, 1853.) 

58. Sykes, Ella. Through Deserts and Oases of Central 

Asia. (London, 1914.) 

59. Sale, George. The Koran (Alcoran of Mohammed.) 

(London, 1825.) 

60. Wilde, Lady Jane F. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms 

and Superstitions of Ireland. (London, 1902.) 

61. Smith, Horatio. Festivals. (New York, 1836.) 

62. Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 

(London, 191 1.) 

63. Jenner, Mrs. Henry. Christian Symbolism. (London, 


64. O'Connor, Vincent C. Travels in the Pyrenees. 

(London, 1913.) 

65. Bassett, Fletcher S. Legends and Superstitions of the 

Sea. (Chicago, 1888.) 

66. Elworthy, F. T. The Evil Eye. (London, 1895.) 

67. Gostling, Frances M. P. Rambles about the Riviera. 

(New York, 1914.) See also her books about the French 
chateaux, and the Bretons. 

68. Ball, Mrs. Katherine M. Decorative Motives in 

Oriental Art. In Japan (magazine), New York, 1922. 

69. Dryden, John. Ovid's Metamorphoses: ''Transformation 

of Syrinx." (Boston, 1854.) 

70. Bendire, Major Charles. Life Histories of North 


American Birds, Vol. I. (Washington, Smithsonian In- 
stitution, 1892.) 

71. MacBain, Alexander. Celtic Mythology and Religion. 

(Stirling, 1917.) 

72. Frazer, Sir J. G. Golden Bough (series). The Scape- 

goat (1913). 

73. Waterton, Charles. Essays (London, 1870). Also 

Wanderings in South America. (New York, 1910.) 

74. Squire. Mythology of the British Isles. (London, 1905.) 

75. Lanciani, Rodolph A. Pagan and Christian Rome, 

(Boston, 1893.) 

76. Williams, Samuel W. The Middle Kingdom. (New 

York, 1883.) 
yy. Mooney, James. Report U. S. Bureau of Ethnology, Vol. 
XIV, 1892-3. 

78. Broderip, W. J. Zoological Recreations. (London, 1849.) 

79. Nuttall^ Thomas. Manual of the Ornithology of the 

United States and Canada. (Cambridge, 1832.) 

80. Heaton, Mrs. John L. By-Paths in Sicily. (New York, 


81. Irby, Col. Howard L. Ornithology of the Straits of 

Gibraltar. (London, 1875.) 

82. Jones, W. Credulities Past and Present. (London, 1877.) 

83. Swanton, John R. Report U. S. Bureau Ethnology, Vol. 

XXVI, 1904-5.. P- 454. u ^ ^ . u A 

84. Hazlitt, William C. Dictionary of Faiths and folk- 

lore. (London, 1895.) 

85. Stevenson, Hamilton S. Animal Life in Africa. (London, 


86. Manat, James I. TEgean Days. (London, 1913.) 

87. The Arabian Nights: Payne's edition (London, 1901.) 

88 Costello, Louis S. The Rose Garden of Persia. (London, 

1899), including "Flowers and Birds" by Azz' Eddin 
Elmocadessi, "Jamshid's Courtship" by Firdausi, and 
prose notes. 

89 Polo, Marco. Travels: Yule's edition. (London, 1875.) 
00 Davis, F. H. Myths and Legends of Japan. (N. Y., 1912.) 

Consult also Joly, Henri L. Legend in Japanese Art. 
(London, 1908.) 

91. Leland, Charles G. Kuloskap, the Master. (New York, 


92. Thiselton-Dyer, Thomas F. English Folklore. (Lon- 


don, 1878.) Consult also his Folk-lore of Plants, and 
his Folk Lore of Shakespeare. 

93. Firdausi. The Shah Nameh: Atkinson's Translation. 

(London, 1886.) 

94. Plutarch. Lives: Camillus, Romulus, Alexander, Etc. 

95. Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archeology, Vol. 

viii, p. 80. 

96. Bombaugh, C. C. Gleanings from the Harvest-Fields of 

Literature. (Baltimore, 1873.) 

97. Leland, Charles G. Etruscan Roman Remains in 

Popular Tradition. (London, 1892.) 

98. Fiske, John. Myths and Myth-Makers. (Boston, 1872.) 

99. Keith, George. Letters: in Les Bourgeis de la Com- 

pagnie du Nord-Ouest. (Quebec, 1889.) 

100. Niblack, Albert P. Report U. S. National Museum, 1888. 

101. Nelson, Edward W. Birds of Bering Sea and the Arctic 

Ocean. (Washington, 1883.) 

102. Schoolcraft, Henry G. Algic Researches. (New York, 


103. Adams, A. Leith. Field and Forest Rambles. (London, 


104. Mooney, James. Report U. S. Bureau Ethnology, Vol. 

XIX, 1897-8, p. 401. 

105. Grinnell, George Bird. Pawnee Hero-Stories and 

Folk-Tales. (New York, 1889.) 

106. Fortier, Alce. Stories and Folk-Tales. (New York, 

1889). Also, Louisiana Folk-Tales. (Boston, 1885.) 

107. Jameson, Mrs. Anna B. History of our Lord as Ex- 

emplified in Works of Art. (London, 1872). See also 
her Legends of the Monastic Orders (1872), and her 
Sacred and Legendary Art (1911). 

108. Verrall, Margaret de G. Mythology and Monuments of 

Ancient Athens. (London, 1890.) 

109. Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library. 

no. Villari, Pasquale. The Barbarian Invasion of Italy. 

(New York, 1902.) 
in. Fox-Davies, Arthur C. Complete Guide to Heraldry. 

(London, 1909.) 

112. Perrot and Chipiez. History of Art in Antiquity: Vol. 

IV, Sardinia and Judea. 

113. Seal of the United States: How it was Developed and 

Adopted. (Washington, Department of State, 1892.) 


Abbey, founded by birds, 269 
Adjutant Stork, stone in head of, 

Aetites, or eagle-stone, 96 
Albatross, raft -nest of, 76 
Alectorius, a magic stone, 95 
Alectromancy, 217 
American eagle, 36 
Ani, or Black Witch, see Jumbie- 

Anka, mythical bird, 198 
Arabian mythical birds, 193, 196 
Ark, messengers from the, 99 
Arthur, King, becomes a raven, 

Arvenus, legend of Lake, 78 
Asbestos, a bird's skin, 195 
Augury and Auspice defined, 214 

Babes in the Wood, story, 116 
Bennu, a sun-symbol, 195 
Bestiaries described, 58 
Bird-myths, origin of, 226, 253 
Bird-of -Paradise, legends of, 63 
Bird-superstitions rare in United 

States, 7 
Birds, alleged hibernation of, 89 
Birds as " Openers, " 240-253 
Birds as pilots, 161 
Birds as spirits, 10, 25, 189 
Birds associated with monks and 

hermits, 262-271 
Birds becoming gods, 18 

Birds changing into other birds, 

Birds connected with Light- 
ning, 242-253 
Birds, fabulous, explained, 202, 

208, 226 
Birds, lucky and unlucky, 25 
Birds of Assyrian seals, 202 
Birds of the Bosphorus, 16 
Birds riding on bigger birds, 81 
Birds transport souls, 190 
Birds, variety of accounted for, 

Bittern, breast-light of, 79 
Blackbird, red winged, 239 
Blackbirds blackened by Raven, 

Blackbirds once white, 233 
Bluebird, mountain, 23, 240 
Blue jay, legend of, 240 
Bluejay visits the Devil, 166 
Brahminy duck, sacred in Thi- 
bet, 18 
Buffon denies song to American 

birds, 78 
Bulbul, Persian nightingale, 48 
Butcher-bird, alleged trick of, 

Buzzard, turkey, features of, 
227, 236, 241, 284 

Chickens as weather-prophets, 




Chickens used in augury, 216, 

Chimney swift, Josselyn's ac- 
count of, 62 
Chouans, named from owl's cry, 

Cinamros, Persian myth, 205 
Cock, alectorius of, 96 
Cock, as Gaulish emblem, 44 
Cock, barnyard, a sun-bird, 218 
Cock, Christian legends of, 109, 


Cock, stoned on Shrove Tues- 
day, 123 

Cormorants, legends of, 228, 231 

Cranes carry away girl, 237 

Crane's foot, origin, 170 

Cranes transport small birds, 

Cranes war with Pygmies, 94 
Crocodile -bird, legend of, 60 
Crossbill, Christian legend of, 

Crow, Chinese three-legged, 172 
Crow, formerly white, 233 
Crow, hooded, dread of, 165 
Crow in Ghost Dance, 176 
Crow, omens from, 213 
Crows'-feet at eyes, 170 
Crows visit the Devil, 166 
Cuckoos as rain-prophets, 223 
Cupid of the Gaels, 3 
Curassow, legend of, 170 

David beguiled by a pigeon, 259 
Deluges, birds connected with, 

Demonic birds, 52, 205 
Devil's birds, 166 

Direction, element in divina- 
tion, 8, 175, 213 
Divination by birds, 212-217; 

trifled with, 257, 258 
Dove and the Holy Grail, 137 
Dove as bird of peace, 140 
Dove, Christian legends of, 113, 

Dove guides Cortez's ship, 138 
Dove instructs Pope Gregory, 

Dove of St. Remi, 133, 137 
Dove, revered in Islam, 135 
Dove saves Genghis Khan, 141 
Dove sent from the Ark, 101 
Dove, symbol of Holy Ghost, 

133, 134, 138 
Dove, symbol of Ishtar, 127-132 
Doves at Dodona, 130 
Doves in Jewish sacrifice, 140 
Doves in Solomonic legends, 259 
Doves, prophetic, 5-9 

Eagle, doubleheaded, 29, 33, 52 
Eagle, emblem of St. John, 149 
Eagle, golden, or war, 24, 35 
Eagle, imperial, 30 
Eagle-lecterns, origin of, 149 
Eagle, legends of, 97 
Eagle, Mexican harpy, 38 
Eagle, myths about, 68, 73, 76 
Eagle of Lagash, 28 
Eagles, omens from, 213 
Eagle-stone, or aetites, 96 
Easter eggs, customs explained, 

Eggs in mosques and churches, 

Eskimo bird-tales, 273, 274 



Fairies traced to Morrigu, 165 
Falcon, symbolism of, 1 50 
Feng-whang. See Fung-whang. 
Fish-hawk, legend of, 80 
France, popular emblem of, 41- 

Franklin compares eagle and 

turkey, 37 
Fung-whang, Chinese myth, 207 

Garuda, Hindoo myth, 206 
Gaul, name explained, 41 
Genghis Khan saved by owl, 

Ghost Dance explained, 177 
Goatsuckers, cries of dreaded, 6, 


Goldfinch, Christian legend of, 

Goose and golden eggs, 66 
Goose-bone fable, 222 
Goose, golden Capitoline, 255 
Goose growing on trees, 64 
Goose in Buddhist myth, 67 
Grebe, legend of, 240 
Green fowl, Mohammedan, 1 5 
Grouse, marks on ruffed, 238 
Guan, legend of, 107 
Guatemala, emblem of, 39 
Guillemots, origin of, 237 
Gulls offend Giant, 234 

Hair, superstitions about, 9 
Halcyon days, meaning of, 22 
Harpies, Sirens, etc., 193 
Hibernation of birds, 89 
Ho-ho, Japanese myth, 208 
Hoopoe, legends of, 153, 250, 261 
Hornbill, superstitions about, 16 

Hummingbird, hibernation of, 

Hummingbird, riding a crane, 81 
Hummingbird, voice lost, 241 

Indian poetic story, 275-279 

Jackdaw of Rheims, 157 
Jay, Canada, gives warning, 4 
Jumbie-bird, Ani, or Black 
Witch, 189 

Kamar, Persian myth, 206 
Karshipta, Persian myth, 206 
King, choice of by birds, 82, 206 
Kingbird, riding a hawk, 81 
Kingfisher, halcyon myth, 20, 

Kingfisher, sent from the Ark, 

Kiskadee, legend of, 239 
Kite, Egyptian legend of, 151 

Lapwing and Covenanters, 256 
Lark, Laverock, funereal, 115 
Legend, definition of, 254 
Lightning attributed to birds, 

Loon, origin of its cry, 279 
Lucky birds, 25 

Macaw as fire-bird, 41 
Magpie, portents by, 171 
Mexico, national emblem, 38 
Migrating birds carried by oth- 
ers, 81-88 
Migration to the moon, 91 
Moccasin flower legend, 6 



Monks, medieval and birds, 262- 

Morrigu and her crows, 165 

Nightingale, myths and legends, 

48, 50 

Number, important in divina- 
tion, 8, 171 

Nuns of Whitby, 88 

Odin's ravens, 150 

Omens trifled with, 257, 258 

Ornithomancy, origin of, 5 

Osage Indians, bird ancestry, 1 1 

Osprey, legend of, 80 

Ostrich eggs, use of, 54 

Ostrich, errors pertaining to, 54 

Ostrich plumes, symbolism, 153 

Owein's ravens, 162 

Owl, a Baker's daughter, 121 

Owl a monarch's daughter, 183 

Owl, Athenian, 180 

Owl in medieval medicine, 185 

Owl once a singer, 112 

Owl once an Eskimo girl, 233 

Owl saves heroes, 186, 258 

Owls, Christian legends of, 121 

Owls, superstitions about, 181, 

187, 213, 258 
Oystercatcher, why blessed, 1 1 2 

Palm, associated with phenix, 

Paradise-birds, 63, 64 
Peacock feathers, indicate rank, 

Peacock, feathers, superstitions, 


Peacock, saves Chinese general, 

Peacocks, legends of, 141-147 
Pelican, errors pertaining to, 58 
Pelican, Seri ancestor, 1 1 
Pelican, symbolism of, 147 
Pharaoh's chicken, 34 
Pheasant, Argus, painted, 233 
Phenix as a Christian symbol, 

Phenix described, 191 
Pigeons in church feasts, 125 
Pigeons of Venice, 125 
Pigeon shrine near Yarkand, 136 
Polynesian bird-gods, 19 

Quails, Israelitish legend, 93 
Quetzal-bird, 39 

Rabbit and Easter eggs, 1 24 
Rain -birds described, 223 
Rara avis (swan), 46 
Raven as culture-hero, 228-234 
Raven, characteristics of, 134 
Raven, Dickens's "Grip," 156 
Raven dresses the birds, 228 
Raven feeds Elijah, 158 
Raven feeds hermits, 164 
Raven flag of Danes, 159 
Raven, ghostly, 164 
Raven, Mosaic view of, 1 58 
Raven, myths concerning, 72, 

105, 248 
Raven once white, 168, 232 
Raven, portents by, 169, 173, 

Raven saves body of St. Vin- 
cent, 164 
Raven sent from the Ark, 100 



Raven's Hill and Barbarossa, 

Ravens, Odin's messengers, 159 
Redbreast, Christian legends of, 

Redbreast covers corpses, 116 
Redpoll, bringing fire, 274 
Rhea, errors concerning, 55 
Robin, American, singing, 282 
Robin, European. See Red- 
Roc (Rukh), Sinbad's discovery, 

Sacred birds explained, 16, 24 
Sagehen, Paiute story of, 106 
Salamander as a bird, 196 
Scapegoats among birds, 25 
Scarlet bird of Taoists, 207 
Schamir, Solomonic legend, 249 
Seal of United States, 36 
Semiramis, story of, 128 
Sentinel-birds, stories of, 254, 

Seven Whistlers, 13, 89 
Shrike, errors regarding, 79 
Shrove Tuesday customs, 123 
Simurgh, Persian myth, 205 
Smell, sense in birds, 75 
Snow-owl blackens raven, 232 
Souls brought by birds, 12 
Souls carried away by birds, 13, 

139, 148 
Sparrow in Christian legends, 

Speech by birds, 3, 10, 13 
Stones possessed by birds, 95 
Stork, as a migrant, 92 
Stork, legends of, 112, 153 

Stymphalia, birds of, 192, 194 
Swallow, Eskimo origin of, 238 
Swallow in Christian legends, 

Swallow, omens from, 25, 213, 

Swallow restores blindness, 96 
Swan, black (rara avis), 47 
Swan, death song, 76 
Swan, omens from, 213 
Symplegades, legend of, 131 

Thibetan divination, 174 
Thunder-birds described, 243- 

248, 281 
Thunder Cape, name explained, 

Trochilus legend, 60 
Trogon, or quetzal -bird, 39 
Trumpeter, legends of, 107, 239 
Tulare, legend of lake, 108 
Turkey, Franklin's preference, 

Turkey, Indian legend of, 106 

Vulture, baldness explained, 227, 

236, 241 
Vulture, omens from, 213 
Vulture revered in Egypt, 151 
Vultures, Persian, 207 
Vulture, Turkey. See Buzzard. 

Wagtail, Ainu legend of, 103 
War-eagle, American Indian, 

Weathercocks explained, 151 
Weather prognostics by birds, 

217, 219, 282 



Whippoorwill as a prophet, 

Winds as birds, 203, 206, 249 
Woodpecker, Calif oraian, 281 
Woodpecker, magical powers of, 


Woodpecker, redheaded, 23, 106, 

235, 241 
Wren, Cherokee story of, 282 
Wren, hunting of in Ireland, 118 

Yel, culture-hero, 230 


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